The Long and Winding Road for the 33-Foot Trailer

Tractor trailer on the road at sunset.

Package delivery and logistics have seen some significant changes in the past decade. With the e-commerce space rapidly expanding and driver shortages on the rise, logistics and freight service providers across the country are trying to find answers quickly.

As discussed at a recent ISM conference by FedEx’s Senior Vice President of Worldwide Services David B. Edmonds, a sales leader for the company, more packages are now being shipped per day to an increasing number of locations. E-commerce sales rose from $42 billion in 2002 to $453.46 billion in 2017, and freight volumes are projected to rise up to 45% by 2045. Concurrently, the United States population has doubled in the past 50 years, resulting in 75 million more vehicles on the road than in 1960.

So, how can these growing demands for shipping be addressed without adding to congestion? Among the many diverse solutions suggested, “There is one simple thing we can do that I’m amazed that we cannot get through the legislature,” said Edmonds. What he was referring to is currently being hotly debated at the intersection of engineering, special interests, and politics — twin 33-foot trailers.

The Pros and Cons of Twin 33-Foot Trailers

FedEx, UPS, and Amazon have all lobbied for twin 33-foot trailers to be approved. In the less-than-truckload sector, the length limit is currently set at 28 feet for federal and interstate highways. Citing a study conducted by a 35-year traffic safety researcher, groups like the Coalition for Efficient and Responsible Trucking (CERT) assert that the implementation of these trailers would result in 6.6 million fewer trips and 3.1 billion fewer miles traveled.

Furthermore, they say, 204 million gallons of fuel would be saved while reducing carbon emissions by 4.4 billion pounds annually. CERT also states that the turning radius would be nearly the same as that of the 28-foot trailer and would be better than that of the single 53-foot tractor-trailer. The organization also states that the new trucks would be more stable on the road in heavy wind and other harsh weather conditions.

In a letter to the Chairman of the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development (THUD) Appropriations Subcommittee from May 7, 2018, the Americans for Modern Transportation (AMT) stated that “the safety of 33-foot trailers is proven, and research has shown that twin 33-foot trailers are more stable and less likely to roll over than twin 28-foot trailers.”

It is also estimated that there will be 4,500 fewer annual truck crashes and 53.2 million driving hours saved if approved. So, with all of these factors at play, what are the main concerns surrounding the issue, and why has it faced such opposition?

The 33-foot trailer has been staunchly opposed by several organizations involved in transportation and trucking, specifically the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and the Truckload Carriers Association (TCA). Their concerns stem from a variety of factors. The AAR argues that increasing truck size and weight — another proposal currently in Congress — would damage roads and bridges, resulting in costs to taxpayers.

In a letter to Congress from February of 2017, the TCA contended that the measure benefits LTL companies at the expense of other sectors in the trucking industry. Citing financial burdens from a previous trailer conversion, from 48 feet to 53 feet, they argued that “though the change … was originally lauded as voluntary, it rapidly evolved into a de facto mandatory change that fleets were expected to make, with none of the financial burden shared by the shipping community.”

It would also worsen the driver shortage, the TCA argues, by demanding new licensing endorsements for 33-foot trailers. Among the other concerns listed in the letter are driver safety, truck parking accommodations, and increased operating costs.

Some opponents also say the trailers would increase weight standards. However, CERT argues that the calls for the 33-foot trailer actually have nothing to do with increasing weight regulations. “The proposal to extend the length limit … does not alter the overall weight limit, nor does it change axle or bridge formula weight limits.”

The organization argues that current LTL carriers fill up, or “cube out,” before the 80,000-lb weight limit is ever reached, so the extra 10 feet in each trailer would allow more cargo to be shipped and reduce the number of trucks required. The organization says the trucks would weigh more on average, but still wouldn’t exceed the current limit.

The Politics of Trucking

In congressional testimony, Amazon Vice President of Global Innovation Policy and Communications Paul Misener said that the increased stopping-distance argument was a nonstarter since the distance it takes to stop a truck is a function of inertia, which is determined by the truck’s total weight and speed. Since the trailer combos wouldn’t weigh more, the same physics would apply as to any vehicle at the 80,000-lb limit.

Misener also argued that wear on bridges and roads would actually be improved due to the trucks’ distribution of weight. “Increasing the length of the truck should not impact the infrastructure adversely at all; in fact, it can help it,” he said. “Because while going over a bridge, for example, the weight is less concentrated and therefore easier on the bridge.” And if projections hold true, fewer trucks would be traveling over these bridges and roads.  

Historically, however, the lobbying efforts to oppose the legislation have won out in public opinion and in Congress. In 2015, ads created by the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks (CABT) that ran on three Washington, D.C., radio stations utilized a police chief's testimony describing the 33-foot truck as “an eight-story building tilted on its side.”

This argument was repeated by Senator Dianne Feinstein during a debate in the Senate that previous summer. Many say the comparison to an “eight-story building” is largely hyperbole, however. The trailers would be 66 feet long (plus some additional space for hardware and power units), far short of the 80-foot minimum needed to qualify for a true eight-story structure. However, the visual impact of larger trucks on the road is significant regardless of statistics. The sight of such a large vehicle may be intimidating to motorists unaware of the sophisticated engineering and physics behind the trucks’ construction.

With concerted messaging and calls for safety, the argument against the 33-foot trailers has been effective, and throughout former President Barack Obama’s term, the administration opposed measures to bring these trucks onto the road.

Looking Ahead

It will be interesting to see how the current presidential administration will respond, especially with the new report released this past April by an advisory panel of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS).

In 2016, the Department of Transportation (DOT) delivered a final report on its Comprehensive Truck Size and Weight Limits Study. However, NAS’ interim report in 2018 concluded that there was a lack of data and urged no changes to policy before more research was conducted. This research would include data on the following categories: safety, enforcement, modal shift, bridges, and pavement.

With so many studies, special interests, and different types of messaging at play, it looks like the fight for — and against — the 33-foot trailer will continue into the foreseeable future. Because the issue involves so many different parties, the argument for the trailers will likely need to be made through a variety of methods and channels. Research and data are only worthwhile if it is communicated and understood. And often what matters in the District of Columbia is not the argument itself, but how well it is argued. 

 

Image Credit: Jaroslav Pachy sr/Shutterstock.com

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