Groups battle for hearts and minds on longer trailers

Groups battle for hearts and minds on longer trailers

  "What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are." —C.S. Lewis, The Magician's Nephew    

The tug-of-war continues in the nation's capital this week over allowing tractors pulling longer 33-ft. double trailers on federal and interstate highways, as opposed to the double 28-ft. trailers currently specified. Only at this point, it's not so much legislative debate as a battle for public opinion as related congressional activity brews.

"Some in Congress want to force states to allow super-size trucks on our roads. These bigger trucks would be even longer than the double-trailer trucks on the roads today," says Clyde, OH Police Chief Bruce Gower in 30- and 60-second radio ads. He also asserts that "super-size double-trailer trucks are not safe for you or your family," likening the longer double-trailer trucks to "an eight-story building tilted on its side."

The ads — funded by the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks (CABT) and running on three radio stations serving the Washington, D.C. metro area — claim law enforcement officers like Gower and truck drivers as well as the U.S. Dept. of Transportation are against the longer trailers.

Clyde, OH Police Chief Bruce Gower

​Gower reinforces those points. "As a police chief, I'm concerned because these super-size double-trailer trucks will take longer to stop than the trucks on the road today," he states. "And as a motorist, I know firsthand how stressful it can be when trucks with double trailers pass you on the highway — the last thing we need to do is make them longer."

Notably, CABT's radio segments hearken to some key language that was heard during the Senate's debate of the six-year highway funding bill it passed over the summer. That reference to an "eight-story building tilted on its side" is one example; that's also been said by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who has called for comprehensive safety study of longer-length trailers.

"Allowing trucks that are the equivalent of an eight-story building on wheels to share the road with our cars runs counter to all notions of highway safety," Feinstein has stated. "It's only logical that we wait to receive all the facts before making sweeping changes to federal law."

It's probably worth breaking down that imagery. Depending on who's doing the construction, stories on buildings range from as little as 10 to — more typically — around 13 ft. floor to floor, making an eight-story building about 80 to 104 ft. high minus any additional fixtures. With two 33-ft. trailers, you've got those 66 ft. plus coupling hardware and a power unit to pull them, which does clearly get you closer to the lower end of the building height possibility.

Set to run for several weeks, the radio ads come as the House of Representatives' respective committees of jurisdiction reportedly are working to hash out a new, long-term surface transportation funding bill to mate up with the Senate's six-year legislation passed back in June. The Senate's bill barely squeaked in a policy rider to allow the twin 33-ft. trailers. 

Also note that the Obama Administration issued a policy statement in June declaring that along with other provisions that had been included in House highway funding legislation at the time, it "strongly objects" to the longer trailers. The administration stated that the provisions "would undercut public safety, including by letting the trucking industry avoid truck size and weight limits."

Further, the administration referenced "troubling changes to truck size and weight limit [that] could significantly compromise safety on our nation's roads."

Less safe, or safer?

Meanwhile, those in the trucking industry on the other side of this issue — primarily less-than-truckload freight carriers hauling things like parcels and packages — say almost the opposite of groups like CABT's position is true, and allowing the twin 33-ft. trailers will result in safer roadways by taking many trucks off of them. The American Trucking Assns. espouses that point.

The Coalition for Efficient and Responsible Trucking (CERT) claims groups like CABT are mixing up the message by making it seem like longer trailers means more weight. CERT dismisses the radio ads as driven by "special interest front groups funded by the rail and insurance industries."

"Members of CERT are not advocating for changes to the federal weight standards," a position paper from the group states. "The proposal to extend the length limit on twin trailers in the less-than-truckload market from 28 to 33 ft. does not alter the overall weight limit of 80,000 lbs., nor does it change axle or bridge formula weight limits."

The argument here is that less-than-truckload carriers often "cube out" — that is, fill up available trailer space — before they ever reach the current 80,000-lb. weight limit. The extra five feet of space in each trailer, and 10 ft. more in total, would allow these carriers to fit more of their cargo in each tractor-trailer, thus reducing the number of trucks they need to run at any given time, CERT argues.

Specifically, CERT claims allowing double 33-ft. trailers on interstate and federal roadways would result in 6.6 million fewer truck trips and 1.3 billion fewer miles traveled; would save 204 million gallons of fuel; and would reduce carbon emissions by 4.4 billion pounds on an annual basis.

Also, the distance it takes to stop a truck is a function of inertia, which is a product of the vehicle's total weight and speed. If longer tractor-twin 33-ft. trailer combos couldn't weigh more than the current limit but might weigh a bit more on average — since they can fit more freight — compared to their current 28-ft. double-trailer counterparts, the effect on stopping distance should be minor, according to CERT. In that vein, Amazon Vice President for Global Public Policy Paul Misener in congressional testimony back in July cited a U.S. Dept. of Transportation estimate that twin 33-ft. trailer trucks would take about 22 ft. more to stop than twin 28-ft. trailer trucks do.

"We are persuaded that the right balance is increasing the length without increasing the weight capacity, or the total weight of the trucks. The weight, of course, is what goes into the inertia — the kinetic energy of an object like this — weight times velocity," Misenser said. He also claimed that increasing the allowable length of twin-trailer trucks would be easier on roads and bridges since it would spread out the weight more.

"Increasing the length of the truck should not impact the infrastructure adversely at all; in fact, it can help it," he said. "Because while going over a bridge, for example, the weight is less concentrated and therefore easier on the bridge."

CERT makes a number of other contentions about twin 33s, as they've been called, including that they have nearly the same tight-turning radius as twin 28-ft. trailer trucks and a better turning radius than the single 53 ft. tractor-trailer combos presently allowed. Twin 33s also are more stable on the road in heavy wind and other conditions, the group claims.

Beyond the back-and-forth on impacts, however, proponents of twin 33s clearly will also have to contend with the public's perception of a longer truck. As Chief Gower suggests in the radio ads, opponents of twin 33s say some motorists — consider especially those driving small, more efficient passenger cars such as a Daimler smart car, a Ford Fiesta/Mazda 2 or Toyota Yaris, to name a few — may well find it more intimidating to drive past another 10 ft. of truck, even if there ultimately would be fewer of them on the road.

"I am afraid of driving next to longer trucks," writes Linda Wilburn of Wilburn, OK, in a post last month on the website of the Truck Safety Coalition, another group against twin 33s. Wilburn explains that her son was killed when a semi crashed into the rear of his car 13 years ago and characterizes things like allowing the longer double-trailers as "handouts for trucking companies" that will make families less safe.



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