WASHINGTON — Any approval by lawmakers on use of twin 33-foot trailers on the nation’s highways will first have to crash through a Congressional roadblock known as the Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security, if testimony and questioning during a hearing on truck safety Tuesday is any indication.
The chairman emeritus of one of the nation’s largest truckload carriers and members of the subcommittee from both sides of the aisle expressed their displeasure with the idea of twin 33s replacing the current twin 28-foot tandems.
The hearing followed by one day the release of a study by Americans for Modern Transportation (AMT) that says use of twin 33-foot trailers would reduce truck miles, avoid 4,500 accidents, reduce congestion and save $2.6 billion in transportation costs.
“At Swift, we are always looking for ways to improve highway safety for our drivers and the public,” said Swift Transportation Chairman Emeritus Jerry Moyes, who founded the company 50 years ago with a single truck. “The last thing we want to do is make our operation less safe. I have heard double 33-foot trailers described as the key to productivity, but we are not willing to trade safety for productivity. Based on our experience we have learned that single trailers are safer than doubles.”
Moyes said safety was a major factor contributing to the carrier’s decision to switch to single 53-foot trailers when they became commonplace in 1993.
Moyes noted that the most recent U.S. Department of Transportation Comprehensive Truck Size and Weight Study found that multi-trailer trucks, primarily those with double trailers, experienced an 11 percent higher overall fatal crash rate than single trailer combinations.
The rate is even higher now, according to a 2013 Rahall Appalachian Transportation Institute report which says that raw data show a 13 percent higher fatal crash rate for double-trailer configurations compared with single-trailer trucks.
“When the data are normalized to compare similar nationwide operation, the gap increases,” wrote Justin Matthews, a research associate with the institute. “In nationwide operation similar to single-trailer combinations, double-trailer trucks are likely to have a fatal crash rate 15.5 percent higher than single-trailer trucks.”
Tuesday’s hearing did little to discourage AMT in its efforts to get 33-foot trailers on the road.
"Tuesday's hearing highlighted the need to modernize our transportation system, something we truly haven't done in over 25 years,” an AMT spokesperson said. “However, the discussion on twin 33s missed the mark on identifying real solutions to upgrade. As Dr. Ron Knipling showed in his recent report, with widespread adoption of twin 33s, there would be 3.1 billion less vehicle miles driven, resulting in 4,500 fewer accidents. Further, competition concerns within the industry are overblown, as twin 33s run on different roads.
"New infrastructure investment combined with advanced technologies and greater efficiencies, will provide a jolt to the U.S. economy. The time to modernize is now."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D.-Conn., opened a 20-minute assault on twin 33 trailers.
“Twin 33s pose a clear danger not only to safety, but the well-being of our infrastructure at a time when we are talking about safeguarding and enhancing our infrastructure,” he said. Double 33s would exact a toll of $1.1 billion, according to the Department of Transportation.”
Blumenthal asked Moyes if he were concerned “about the deadly toll” win 33s would take if they were instituted.
“Yes,” Moyes said, quickly turning to the financial impact of twin 33s.
“In my testimony, I said that approximately 78 percent of the trucks on the road today are from the truckload industry and almost all of them are pulling the 53-foot trailer,” he said. “If the 33 was allowed it would force our industry to go at least 50 percent to the 33-foot trailers. We run 60,000 trailers and if we had to change half the fleet to twin 33s it would have a huge capital investment and that’s money we couldn’t use for other resources such as improving technology.”
Roger Wicker, R-Miss., has long opposed the longer trucks, according to his office.
“There are some who have proposed a federal mandate for twin 33s as opposed to the current system we have where states get to choose,” Wicker said. “A federal mandate would pre-empt laws of states that do not want them on the road. “
Wicker also expressed concern about the increase in large truck fatalities.
“In 2015 the number of large trucks involved in fatal crashes increased by 8 percent and we learned today during this hearing that the number of people who died in large truck crashes was 22 percent higher in 2015,” he said.
Wicker also noted that trucks with tandem trailers have the highest out-of-service rate and that there is a correlation between OOS rates and crash risk.
Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said she was against twin 33s.
“I will add my name to the list who think that double 33s are a really bad idea,” she said. “In New Hampshire, we have a variety of roads, including mountainous terrains. I would be very concerned about the impact of 33-foot trailers.”
In response to other questions, Moyes said:
Others testifying before the subcommittee were Christopher A. Hart, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board; Capt. Chris Turner of the Kansas Highway Patrol and vice president of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance; Dr. Paul P. Jovanis, professor emeritus, Pennsylvania State University and chair of the Transportation Research Board Motor Carrier Safety Research Analysis Committee; and Dr. Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Lund told the subcommittee that highway deaths have been on the rise as the economy has improved, but truck-related crash deaths are increasing faster than overall motor vehicle crash deaths.
“Vehicle defects, tired truckers and high travel speeds are factors that can influence the incidence and outcome of large truck crashes,” Lund said. “Making sure that equipment is in good working order, drivers are properly rested, and truck speeds are reduced are important steps that would improve the safety of all road users.”
Jovanis pointed to a need for more enforcement activity on non-interstate highways, noting that a 2012 analysis indicated that most fatal truck crashes in two states occurred on state roads and highways rather than on interstate highways, where most truck inspection enforcement activity is focused.
“Furthermore, the non-interstate fatal crash rate per truck mile traveled is roughly two and one-half times that of the interstate crash rate,” he said. “If this experience is typical of national trends, a targeted effort to identify and enforce appropriate countermeasures is needed to reduce fatal truck crashes off the interstate system. Even off the interstates, a substantial portion of truck-involved fatal crashes involve interstate carriers, which implies that a substantial share of this safety problem is within FMCSA’s responsibility.”
Hart, whose term as chair of the NTSB ended the day after the agency called on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to provide better oversight of commercial truck operations, said, “We have found instances in which deficiencies in the FMCSA compliance review program allowed companies with serious safety problems to continue operations. The NTSB readily acknowledges the FMCSA’s efforts to make improvements to its oversight of commercial truck operations. Yet, the crashes that the NTSB investigates attest to the fact that more oversight improvements and additional resources are needed to prevent future crashes involving commercial trucks.”