Safety advocates urge against longer trucks on highways

Tucked away in a $55.3 billion federal transportation spending bill up for vote in the U.S. Senate this week is a non-budgetary item allowing for bigger trucks on the nation’s highways.

The proposal would increase maximum tandem trailer length from 28.5 feet per trailer to 33 feet.

The length increase for trailers is being backed by large trucking companies – namely Con-way Freight, FedEx and UPS – as a way to meet demand in a growing industry. But Illinois road safety advocates said the change will endanger motorists and goes against findings in a new U.S. Department of Transportation analysis.

The report – released in June – calls on Congress to make no changes to truck size and weight limits because of “profound data limitations,” while noting 33-foot twin trailers need more time to stop than the current 28.5 foot trailers in all braking scenarios.

Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said his organization is concerned about the longer stopping distances and increased blind spots.

“It’s a no-brainer issue. It’s less safe on the roadways,” Wojcicki said.

Shane Reese, spokesman for the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks, said longer trucks could lead to dangerous roadway situations.

“If a driver is coming up over a hill, or coming around a curve, and traffic is backed up, they might simply not be able to stop in time,” Reese said. “That driver could have nothing in their bloodstream, fully rested ... but it’s a very real dilemma here.”

Reese added it’s troubling that a nonbudgetary issue such as truck lengths has been attached to a federal transportation budget bill, rather than being vetted through the proper channels.

U.S. Rep. Bill Foster said via email Friday he voted against the measure, which passed the House earlier this month, with public safety in mind. He said the transportation department study pointed out that it’s impossible to evaluate the safety tradeoffs because of a lack of data.

“As a scientist, I make my decisions based on the data,” Foster said via email. “Here we have an agency that says it needs better data to work with. I think it would be foolhardy to rush ahead and allow larger, longer trucks on the road without knowing with certainty the impacts it would have on public safety.”

Last year, the Illinois Trucking Association took a neutral stance on the bill, but Matt Hart, the group's executive director, said this week the ITA's board of directors opted to support the change instead.

“We didn’t see much downside to it,” Hart said, noting how he thinks the change would mostly benefit LPL companies — or less-than-truckload companies that are typically full before they reach federal 80,000-pound weight limits.