Can heavier trucks can solve our transport problems?

seta-heavier-trucksRecently the US government proposed encouraging larger trucks to move freight around America.

The Safe and Efficient Transportation Act (SETA) would permit states to set interstate weight limits of up to 97,000lbs for trucks equipped with six axles instead of the typical five, trucks that normally weigh in around 80,000lbs.

Why use heavier trucks?

There are several reasons why heavier trucks are being promoted:

  • Improved fuel economy – With a better fuel-to-ton ratio, the overall carbon footprint of cargo can be reduced. Larger capacity means fewer trips. The DOT estimates the change will save around two billion gallons of diesel, a 19% reduction in total fuel consumption.
  • Allow for more cargo – The amount of goods being shipped is increasing and transport systems need to allow for this future growth. In fact, a comment from the executive director of CTP (Coalition for Transport Productivity) explains why this is a necessity. “The American Trucking Associations estimates that the trucking industry will haul 30 percent more tonnage in 2021 than it does today,” said John Runyan, executive director of CTP, which also applauded the new rule. “If current weight restrictions remain the same, that means our economy will require 18 percent more trucks on the road driving 27 percent more miles than they do now. The Safe and Efficient Transportation Act would ease the burden on our roads by adjusting weight limits to safely reduce the number of trucks required to ship a given amount of goods.”
  • Less trucks needed – By increasing the capacity of trucks plying the highways the idea is that it will reduce the total number of trucks on our roads, easing congestion, reducing carbon emissions and potentially making the roads safer. In an example cited by John Runyan, a carrier stated that if they had been permitted to run 97,000lb trucks instead of 80,000lb vehicles they would have been able to downsize their fleet by 20% or 150 trucks. 150 less trucks on the roads is a good thing for everyone (except the drivers but more on that later).
  • Make American-produced goods more competitive – Another reason for raising the weight limits is the potential it has to lower the overall cost of manufacturing. The U.S. DOT estimates that the use of six-axle trucks could save as much as $14.5 billion in shipping costs annually. SETA will also make U.S. goods more competitive in the global marketplace, as Canada, the United Kingdom, and many other countries already have higher weight limits.”

When will the changes take effect?

The higher capacity trucks are already available and working on American roads, although the current weight limits mean they often travel with empty space on board. Once the legislation is approved (at the time of print it had been referred to the committee) states can then choose whether they adopt the new limits or not.

State authorities will have their own reasons for accepting or rejecting the increased truck weights, however many have already begun pilot projects, including Maine and Vermont, and are evaluating roads and bridges to check they can support the heavier trucks.

Are there any downsides to the new legislation?

Like anything there’s fine print. Is the new legislation as good as it sounds? Potential problems could include:

  • Job losses – With potentially fewer trucks on the roads, there will be greater competition for truck driving positions however this may be offset by increased product output. Truck drivers would do well to make sure they have a good driving record and promote optimized routing systems to reduce fleet costs.
  • Higher chance of fatal truck accidents – Increasing the weight of a fast-moving object by almost 20,000lbs raises the potential of an accident going from just an injury to a fatality. Of course this would no doubt be a boon to the plethora of truck accident lawyers out there (and a reminder for carriers to check their fleet safety monitoring systems).
  • Damage to transport infrastructure – Heavier trucks can take a bigger toll on roads and bridges, particularly older structures not built for vehicles weighing almost 100,000lbs. State authorities will need to make sure their infrastructure can safely support heavier trucks.

Do you agree with the new legislation, or have any questions about it? Feel free to add your comments below or answer other people’s questions.