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Wiggle Wagons, Widow Makers and Why

— May 6, 2016

Why not better management of trucking companies? Why not more safe places for truckers to sleep? We’re not getting that though, at least not from industry lobbyists and Congress. Instead, they’re trying to erode safety regulations. One of the latest pushes if for bigger, longer and heavier vehicles. Part four covers wiggle wagons, widow makers and why.

In part three of this series, we looked at one trucker’s tragic story and how it could have been different if things in the industry were different. The real questions here are why do we need less safety regulation? Why not better management of trucking companies? Why not more safe places for truckers to sleep? We’re not getting that though, at least not from industry lobbyists and Congress. Instead, they’re trying to erode safety regulations. One of the latest pushes if for bigger, longer and heavier vehicles. Part four covers wiggle wagons, widow makers and why.

Lobbyists for larger trucking companies, such as UPS and FedEx, are suggesting to certain members of Congress that:

  • Load weight could be increased beyond the federal 80,000-pound limit, permitting delivery of more goods per truck;
  • Trailers could be longer. Instead of the current limit on double trailers of 28 feet, each section could be 33 feet, effectively making each truck around 80-feet long, “as long as an eight-story building is tall.” This new plan would strip states of the rights to regulate trailer length by making 33 feet the federal limit;
  • Hours could be increased from 70 per week up to 82 per week and truckers could be more flexible with their rest breaks;
  • Labor costs could be reduced by hiring lower-paid drivers, as young as 18;
  • Federal motor carrier safety ratings could be kept secret when dealing with unsafe trucking companies.

Yes, the lobbyists are asking for all of these things. And no, most people have no idea. Why? Because the lobbyists are getting certain members of Congress to sneak changes to industry regulations into other, non-trucking related pieces of legislation.

Needless to say, many people aren’t too happy with these proposed changes.

Taxpayers would be on the hook for the extra wear and tear on roadways and bridges, some already poorly maintained. Likewise, taxpayers would likely be required to pick up part of the tab for renovating weigh stations and other truck-handling facilities.

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

Safety advocates and law enforcement are concerned that, even with the current 28-foot-length, double trailers already pose a greater risk than single-trailer rigs. The Coalition Against Bigger Trucks (CABT) said that the double trailers come with a higher rate of crash fatalities.

According to Robert Mills, a member of the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee responsible for recommending rules to the feds and a Fort Worth, Texas police officer with 13 years’ experience as a roadside safety inspector, “From a safety perspective, double 33-foot trailers are basically a disaster.”

Last, but certainly most important, are the truckers who would be driving these larger rigs. The terms “wiggle wagons” and “widow makers” come from truckers, not safety advocates or police officers. Some smaller trucking companies, including conglomerates Swift and Knight, joined CABT to stop the push for the 33-foot-long double trailers.

Trooper Balder, from part one of this series, now works with CABT. He said that even when accidents with double trailers don’t cause injuries, they leave dangerous accident scenes, often covering multiple lanes of traffic and creating risks for other drivers.

CERT, a coalition of shippers, wanted the 33-footers, though. And they wanted them badly. In 2012, they worked to require the Department of Transportation (DOT) to conduct an impact study of the weight and size increases. CERT believed the impact would be negligible. Rather than risk finding otherwise, it got its friends in Congress to add the longer truck provision to the House’s version of the 2016 transportation spending bill.

Two weeks after the House sent the bill through, the DOT released the requested study, recommending against the larger rigs as the safety issues were unresolved.

The funding bill held other “surprise” provisions from the trucking industry lobbyists and their Congressional friends. One sought to extend the suspension of Collins’ sleep rules, which called for another study into the efficacy of making truckers have two nights of sleep. Once again, a new provision changed the plan. The newly-proposed study was also to look into the effect of the regulation on driver longevity. This, of course, means studying the participants until they died. It was signed into law as part of the 2016 spending bill.

According to Rep. David Price (D-NC), the lead Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee dealing with transportation, “They just basically want to stall this forever.”

One provision was only partly successful. The industry wanted to hide the BASIC safety measurements for trucking companies from the public and prevent the data from being used in lawsuits. The lawsuit bit was negotiated out of the bill, but the BASIC scores were hidden and taken down from the agency’s website.

This type of backdoor legislation could impact the safety of almost 11M registered big rigs in the U.S. And it passed because it was hidden in a bill that had to be passed to prevent a government shutdown. No one really had much of a chance to do much debating of the merits of the provisions.

Rep. Price said, “The advocates of relaxing the rules or eliminating the rules, they see that and think this is their train to catch. … Not just wait on the normal process, or count on something as pedestrian as actual hearings or discussion, but to make a summary judgement and latch it on to an appropriations bill.”

There’s a reason for this backdoor legislation. The industry can’t get any of its ideas to pass on their own when its Congressional buddies float the proposals independently of other legislation. When the House tried to change the highway construction bill to increase truck weight limits last November, the effort failed 187 to 236.

The industry isn’t giving up, though. In 2015, it did step back from an attempt to prevent states from enforcing rest and pay regulations that are stricter than their federal counterparts. The larger companies managed to get the provision into the House’s highway construction bill, but the Senate refused to pass that version. So, the industry is making another attempt this year with the same provision. This time, it’s getting its Congressional friends to add the provision to a House bill that reauthorizes the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA is operating on a stopgap measure set to expire in mid-July. In the Senate, a very different version of the bill is in the works. What this does is set up the perfect conditions for the trucking industry’s backdoor legislative game: a “must-pass bill behind closed doors with a looming deadline and little ability to alter deeply buried provisions.”

In short, lookout everyone; those who are supposed to be protecting our nation’s truckers and citizens are set to pass legislation that will dramatically reduce safety. Our nation needs truckers to deliver the goods that make American lives livable. Their families need them to come home safely, as do the families of other drivers on the road.

This isn’t right.

In the final part of this series, we revisit Trooper Balder and his commitment to making things right. We need to tell these stories. We need the nation to understand that the true fault lies at the feet of a corrupt industry lobby and corrupt politicians. Are there truckers who bend the rules when they don’t have to? Yes, just as there are motorists who do the same, challenging the laws of physics by cutting off big rigs. There will always be individuals who won’t play by the rules, no matter what the rules are. However, the rules themselves – and the people who make them – should be focused on safety, not on profits.


Trucks Are Getting More Dangerous And Drivers Are Falling Asleep At The Wheel. Thank Congress.

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