New transportation bill creates safety concerns over bigger rigs

Opponents say larger tractor-trailers would not only be less safe, but would add greater stress to roads and bridges.

Story highlights

  • A proposed transportation bill would allow heavier and longer trucks on highways
  • "If there was ever a recipe for disaster, this is it," Sen. Frank Lautenberg says
  • Requiring a sixth axle would keep trucks as safe as now, an industry official says
Could tractor-trailer rigs almost as long as Boeing 737s be driving on a highway near you? If a new transportation bill proposed by House Republicans passes, the answer is yes, and the safety ramifications would be astronomical, say congressional opponents of the bill and the AAA Auto Club.
The American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act introduced Tuesday by Republicans would authorize about $260 billion over five years to fund federal highway programs.
The legislation also contains a controversial provision allowing heavier tractor-trailer trucks on highways by increasing the federal weight limit from 80,000 pounds to 97,000 pounds. In some cases, it would allow 126,000-pound trucks onto highways.
The legislation also allows the largest rigs, which comprise two and sometimes three trailers, to be as much as 10 feet longer -- a total length of more than 100 feet.
While statistics from 2010 show overall traffic fatalities declining across the nation, truck crash fatalities actually increased 9%, to 3,675, according to statistics from the Truck Safety Coalition.
Opponents of the proposed legislation say having even bigger trucks on the roads would increase the amount of fatalities because bigger trucks take longer to stop and their crashes are even more destructive.
"If there was ever a recipe for disaster, this is it," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, chairman of the Commerce Subcommittee on Surface Transportation. "We all value the importance of trucks to our economy, to our recovery ... but the trucks have to share the roads with our families, and that's why we're never going to let trucks take a priority over the well-being of our families."
But the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, a transportation advocacy group, says heavier trucks don't create safety issues so long as states make sure to require the trucks to have a sixth axle.
"The truck weight provision in the bill simply gives states the ability to open all, or portions of, their interstate networks to more productive, single-trailer trucks equipped with six axles rather than the typical five. Without changing truck size, the required sixth axle maintains all braking and handling characteristics at the new limit of 97,000 pounds," John Runyan, executive director of the coalition said in a written statement.
Besides safety issues, opponents also say bigger trucks would put further stress on already deteriorating roads and bridges.
"At a time when we are seriously under-investing in the nation's transportation infrastructure, allowing bigger and heavier trucks on our roads and bridges is a step in the wrong direction," said Jill Ingrassia, AAA managing director of government relations and traffic safety advocacy.
The bill is heading for a hearing in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Thursday, and Rep. James McGovern, D-Massachusetts, a member of the committee, said he will use everything in his power, including working with the Senate and the Obama administration, to get this provision taken out of the bill.
"I feel confident we're going to prevail here, but we're here to tell the leadership of the House that we're raring for a fight here," McGovern said. "We are going to fight. This is a serious issue."