It was 1982. Ronald Reagan was president. The economy was in the grip of a tough recession. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker was crushing inflation the hard way by taking interest rates into the stratosphere. The railroad industry was in tatters, and truckers and railroads were finding their way through the newly deregulated environment —a result of the recently enacted Motor Carrier Act and Staggers Rail Act.
In the intervening 32 years, the U.S. population, the U.S. economy, and the freight demand underpinning that economy have grown considerably. The rail industry has recovered nicely. Yet the size and weight of motor vehicles that haul about two-thirds of the stuff we want and need hasn't budged an inch, at least at the federal level. Federal law limits the maximum length of each trailer on a double hookup to 28 feet, though 18 states allow double 33s on their portion of the interstate highway system.
Three-plus decades are long enough to keep productivity static for the nation's shippers. This is especially true in light of the growing problem of congestion on the nation's highways. That is why an industry push to add five feet to the length of each trailer in a double hookup, and to make the change the law of the land, is so sensible. So sensible that the Transportation Research Board and the Energy Security Leadership Council endorse it. And so sensible that it should be included in the next transport reauthorization law.
The change won't add more weight to a truck, thus mollifying those worried about heavier vehicles damaging an already overstressed infrastructure. An increase in twin-trailer length could ease highway stress and reduce the number of truck-related accidents by allowing the same freight volume to be moved in fewer trips. Trade groups, carriers, and shippers supporting the initiative say it would reduce annual truck trips by 3.3 million and miles traveled by 663 million. This, in turn, would result in 456 fewer crashes.
What the change would do is add about 16 percent more cubic capacity to the road. This translates into a 16- to 18-percent increase in shipment volumes without adding incremental miles. Why is that important?
First, freight cubes out before it weighs out. That is, the space inside gets filled before the load hits the legal weight limit. The operators of doubles, mostly package delivery and less-than-truckload carriers, rarely fill trailers to their 80,000-pound maximum weight. The increase would enable carriers—and shippers—to more fully utilize a trailer's cubic capacity. Given that the explosive growth in e-commerce will increase demand for the delivery of lighter-weight, bulky packages, the 10-foot total cubic increase would be welcomed.
Some believe that longer trailers would make vehicles harder to operate. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) argues that drivers would need more room to make right-hand turns. However, in congressional testimony last year, Frederick W. Smith, chairman and CEO of FedEx Corp., said in pilot tests, the company's drivers told management that the handling was more stable with the longer trailers.
The rail industry still has concerns about the use of double trailers, though a cynic might argue the rails' protestations are more economic than safety-related. OOIDA, meanwhile, said there is no need to add length since most trailers are not fully utilized as it is. That argument holds less water given the growth of e-commerce and the shipment characteristics of online orders. The group added that those supporting this increase just want to add costs to small businesses by forcing them to invest in unnecessary equipment. To that, we say that no one is being required to buy or lease larger trailers.
The increased truck size and weight crowd is unlikely to get what it really wants in the next transport funding bill, namely an increase in a truck's gross vehicle weight. There is too much political baggage attached to that. But they can hold out hope that a boost in the allowable length of a twin-trailer, a modest and practical approach to balancing safety and economic imperatives, can see the light of legislative day.
We certainly hope so.