For years, the trend has been towards more, longer, heavier, faster, trucks. Trucking companies and independent truckers lobbied for these changes in state highway regulation to squeeze more profitability out of their trips.
Forces of physics rule, however, when an accident involves big trucks. The heavier, longer, and faster the truck, the more the driver’s reactions, experience and skill, and the truck’s brakes, steering, and tires must compensate for. Operators’ maneuverability is further compromised by added truck length or the addition of multiple trailers. Of course, a truck even with current legal limits on mass and velocity will crush the largest SUV or pickup truck. Unfortunately for thousands yearly, this means that being involved in an accident with a tractor-trailer doubles the likelihood of fatality.
Truck freight is predicted to increase significantly. “The Annual Energy Outlook 2009 (AEO), projects annual truck vehicle miles traveled (VMT) to grow by 2.5 percent per year, for each of the next 20 years [Energy Information Agency, 2009].This projection comes despite a first-time-ever decline in U.S. truck VMT in 2007 and 2008 because of high fuel prices and some recessionary pressure.
The more trucks on the road and the faster, longer, heavier, and less maneuverable they are, the greater the chances of injurious and fatal accidents. As congestion mounts on our crumbling Interstate Highway System, the risk is driven higher. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) estimated average daily long-haul truck traffic in the U.S. and mapped it.
Federal Highway Administration, U.S. DOT, 2003. Click image to download a full size view.
The thickness of the red line corresponds with the daily volume of heavy truck traffic on that highway. Here is what the U.S. DOT anticipates will be the truck volume on U.S. highways in about 25 years:
Federal Highway Administration, U.S. DOT, 2003. Click image to download a full size view.
If DOT projections are correct, certain highways will become little more than national truck routes. Accelerating truck freight volume has many deleterious public health and safety implications for those traveling these routes, and residents who live near these burgeoning “freight corridors.”
In Tennessee, the state Department of Transportation projects that heavy truck VMT will grow 50% faster than the growth rate for any other vehicle type.
Tennessee Department of Transportation, Plan Go--I-40/I-81 Corridor Feasibility Study, Bristol to Memphis, TN, 2008
While large trucks accounted for three percent of all registered vehicles and seven percent of total vehicle miles traveled in 2003, about 12 percent of all traffic fatalities in 2004 resulted from a collision involving a large truck.
A battle is raging over the expanding role trucks play in American transportation. The Coalition Against Bigger Trucks is an alliance of consumer, health and safety and major insurance companies and insurance agents’ organizations. The banner “headline” on their home page says, “One triple trailer truck is as long as a Boeing 737 and as heavy as 27 SUVs.” This coalition is a leader in the fight against state or federal legislation that would allow Longer Combination Vehicles (LCVs)—“Triples” trucks hauling three 28-foot trailers, “Doubles,” trucks pulling two trailers—one at least 48 feet, the other 28 feet long, or two 48-foot or longer trailers.
Office of Transportation Policy Studies, FHWA U.S. DOT,
Lobbying pressure from the railroads and safety advocates led Congress in 1991 to freeze expansion of the operation of LCVs on interstate highways to only those western states where they were then legal. However, the 19 state governors of the Western Governors’ Association recently petitioned Congress to allow trailer doubles and triples up to 120 feet long on Western interstates.
Testifying before the U.S. Senate and Public works Committee in July, 2008, Jackie Gillan, Vice President of the Coalition explained in detail some of the major safety concerns about heavier and longer trucks and LCVs with multiple trailers:
Each year, about 5,000 people die in crashes involving big trucks and this fatality toll has not changed in the past decade. A large part of the reason is the increased numbers of heavier trucks, sometimes pulling two and even three trailers …
Roadcheck 2008 found that 52.6 percent of all commercial motor vehicle defects resulting in OOS[Out of Service] orders were faulty brakes. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has stated its concern in several studies about the increased chances of finding poor brakes on bigger trucks with more axles. Heavier trucks also have a higher risk of rollovers as they add more weight on the same number of axles. … When those loads also involve cargo that can easily shift, such as…liquids in cargo tanks, extra-heavy trucks become extremely unstable in emergency steering maneuvers or when sudden braking is required to negotiate a sharp curve.
…the U.S. DOT found that if LCVs increased their operations nationwide, they would suffer an 11 percent higher overall fatal crash rate. This finding was further confirmed in another DOT study that specifically cautioned against the increased use of long combinations pulling multiple trailers because of amplification or sway of the last trailing units and poorer control of load transfer as compared with single semi-trailer trucks which makes LCVs more prone to out-of-control and rollover crashes.
Another coalition of 150 companies, including Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola, and Miller-Coors, is currently lobbying Congress to allow trucks weighing 120% of current limits to haul on interstate highways. Congress is preparing to consider a bill allowing states to raise truck weight limits on interstate highways from 80,000 pounds to 97,000. Trucks would then be required to add a sixth trailer axle to compensate for additional weight.
Opponents of the bill include railroad companies, which fear loss of market share to larger trucks, a group of survivors of the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse, state public-safety officials, and some independent truckers. These independents, represented by the Independent Drivers Association, fear they would be pushed into buying costly new rigs. The IDA’s representative says stability is "substantially reduced on bigger and heavier trucks."
Map: Coalition Against Bigger Trucks
Also supporting larger, heavier trucks is the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles-based, self-described libertarian think-tank. The Foundation is a driving force in support of greatly expanding the role of trucking in the U.S. The Foundation supports tolling all interstates to generate money to maintain and build more highway lanes. They also advocate for private toll roads and truck-only toll roads both for LCVs and for general truck transportation. The foundation endorses greater federal spending to re-construct interstate highways, including a new national system of truck-only toll lanes. However, the Reason Foundation categorically opposes federal funds for transit and has long-opposed AMTRAK and more recently federal high-speed rail investments.
The U.S. is at a transportation policy crossroads. Citizens must decide and tell their government where to allocate limited financial resources. Should the nation invest in an electrified Steel Interstate System or fund improving the highway network for trucks? The information on this website should make the answer plain. Safety, public health, fuel savings, environmental and land preservation, climate change, cost, and economic benefits all favor building the Steel Interstate. A sea change in investment strategy is needed towards funding multi-modal solutions, especially rail.
Mode-neutral public planning and funding would allocate expenditures to the transportation mode—highways and motor vehicles, railroad and trains, light rail transit, buses, barges and ferries, or airplanes, airports, and air traffic control—that provides the most return for the investment. That return on public investment would be determined by evaluating each option for its ability to deliver safe, efficient, reliable, inexpensive, and environmentally sensitive mobility for people and freight. Frequently, the best solutions are multi-modal, involving more than one mode per trip or shipment. The multi-modal approach is very effective at meeting community, state and national transportation needs because it makes the best use of the advantages each modes offers.
Mode-neutral planning and funding should be employed by state and federal departments of transportation to determine which approaches will best relieve congestion, reduce maintenance costs, and increase safety. Instead, all too often these departments routinely build more highways simply because almost all transportation tax monies derive from fuel taxes and highway tolls.
The Reason Foundation advocates against mode-neutral funding because “auto drivers and truckers will be tapped to pay for any number of projects that will not benefit them at all.” Such assertions ignore the fact that investment in the Steel Interstate System would also be significantly beneficial to individuals who continue to use the existing highway network.
Advocates at the Reason Foundation want the Highway Trust Fund to be spent only for highways. Such a restriction guarantees that limited public financial resources will continue to be spent almost exclusively on more highways, despite declining return on this investment. More highway lanes simply attract more trucks and more trucks mean more accident hazard and stress. The faulty logic here is the assumption that the highway system is the best system for all transportation needs. The reality is that the highway system has grown because highways have received nearly all surface transportation dollars in the U.S. for six decades. The best transportation system is integrated and multi-modal with each mode employed when it is most economical, efficient, safe, and does the least harm to the environment.
The scale of highway construction required to fulfill the foundation’s vision is vast and will adversely affect millions of travelers on a daily basis. If the U.S. and the states shift a significant portion of the hazards of highway construction to the railroad where traffic is highly managed and construction can be carried out very safely, many lives can be saved. Many accidents and much stress would be avoided.
When the Eisenhower Interstate System was conceived and built, it vastly increased auto and truck efficiency and safety. Vehicles could move seamlessly across the country avoiding stoplights and urban congestion. As we all know, those highways changed our landscape and became clogged as sprawl development followed the highways.
Trucks, traveling virtually free on the publicly-financed Interstate Highway System, rapidly took over most time-sensitive freight from the railroads. Heavier trucks caused more and more pavement damage, while eroding more and more of the railroads’ share of freight haulage. Improvements to make railroads “just in time” service capable would rebalance our transportation system.
Building the Steel Interstate System will greatly expand and speed up passenger service. The Reason Foundation’s argument against mode-neutral funding assumes that people who drive now will never choose to take the train. Unfortunately this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we don’t make investments in more efficient alternatives, people will indeed be forced to continue using the inefficient modes that we do provide.
As people age they will need an adequate passenger rail system available to them to choose stress-free travel instead of risking their diminished reaction times on a truck-clogged interstate highway. Circumstances change, people move and modal options are needed to reflect these changes. Certainly, some people will ride a passenger train simply because it becomes available to ride when there was none before. Others will gravitate to the train as it becomes more personally advantageous to do so, say, because of increased fuel costs or highway safety concerns. Still others, will ride the train so that they can work as they travel.
The same is true for time-sensitive freight. More shippers will move products by rail if reliable, fast, “just in time” service that is currently supplied only by trucks becomes available by train. More freight and even whole trucks will begin to move by train, reducing pressure to accommodate more, longer, faster, heavier trucks.
Those individual decisions to change mode will make all highways less congested, safer, and less stressful to drive.
 Sperling, D. and Cannon, J.S., Eds. Climate and Transportation Solutions: Findings from the 2009 Asilomar Conference on Transportation and Energy Policy, Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Davis, 2010, p. 133.
 Young, P. Upward Trend in Vehicle-Miles Resumed During 2009: A Time Series Analysis, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, April, 2010, http://www.bts.gov/publications/bts_transportation_trends_in_focus/2010_04_01/html/entire.html.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Center for Statistics and Analysis. http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/trucking_industry/index.html#safety.
 Gillian, J.S., Saving lives on our nation’s highways, statement, before Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, 7-17-08, http://cabt.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=12&Itemid=168.
Levitz, J., Supersizing Hits Freight World, Wall Street Journal, 8-15-10.
Gillian, J.S, op. cit., http://www.occupationalhazards.com/Classes/Article/ArticleDraw_P.aspx, has a summary of the initial figures for Roadcheck 2008.
In ibid, see, for example, Comprehensive Truck Size and Weight Study, U.S. DOT (2000), and Study of the Braking Performance of Heavy U.S. Vehicles, NHTSA (1987).
In ibid, Western Uniformity Scenario Analysis – A Regional Truck Size and Weight Scenario Requested by the Western Governors’ Association, April 2004.
Levitz, J., op. cit.
Coalition Against Bigger Trucks, http://www.cabt.org/images/stories/CABT_PDF/proposedlcvroutes2001.pdf, 2008.
Poole, R., Time to Consider Tolling the Interstates: Tolls could play a critical role in reconstructing and modernizing Interstates, Reason Foundation, 1-1-09, http://reason.org/news/show/time-to-consider-tolling-the-i.
How to Increase Federal Highway Investment By $10 Billion a Year Without a Tax Increase, Refocusing federal transportation policy and federal gas tax revenue on the Interstate Highway System, Reason Foundation, 8-3-10, http://reason.org/news/show/1010310.html.
 Frequently Asked Questions, Toll Truckways: A New Path Toward Safer and More Efficient Freight Transportation, Reason Foundation, undated. http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:G1CHVzeByc4J:reason.org/files/17a4e39f292ca873e601ac2f0b07a3bb.pdf+LCVs&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESjm743jxuta7EnEzRgZ_CfeoEoBaF6fj2eEiZhpvXeLpNtVzb2f1l_AURyQD73QPfWNSZgXYfLm3RinWHPwW4fWsB_idFghGY7Ku8iLVVpdGpNwVMaHtoYvCGtlfvrDpHkq3B0P&sig=AHIEtbQILwkmNaOxvHvz8mGhALHslhxKHQ or http://126.96.36.199/ps294faq.pdf].
Poole, R., Modernizing the Interstate System and Rethinking How We Spend Federal Gas Tax Money, Reason Foundation, 8-3-10, http://reason.org/blog/show/interstate-highway-modernize-gas-ta.
Vranich, J., Replacing Amtrak: A Blueprint for Sustainable Passenger Rail Service, Reason Foundation, 10-1-97, http://reason.org/news/show/replacing-amtrak
Poole, R., High-Speed Rail Plans Are Misconceived What problem are these trains solving? Who will pay the annual operating costs? Reason Foundation, 2-11-10, http://reason.org/news/show/high-speed-rail-plans-are-misc
Poole, R., The Future of Transportation Funding: Four performance-based principles to improve infrastructure fund, Reason Foundation, May 7, 2010. http://reason.org/news/printer/future-of-transportation-funding