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Trucking Information Fact Sheet

What contributions is the Federal Government making to truck safety?

Federal and State Regulations

  • Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21)

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century has recently been signed into law.  The act purports to provide, for the purposes of truck safety, increased awareness of unsafe trucks, resulting in the removal from the roads of America.  To view a summary of the Act, choose here.  More on TEA-21 is found below, organized by category.


  • Commercial Drivers License

The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986, which was not implemented until 1992, was designed to thwart the attempt of truck drivers to obtain drivers’ licenses from more than one State.  This was done by truck drivers to avoid penalties from one State to the next, including suspension.  Prior to the enactment of the Act, drivers could obtain an Indiana license even though he had lost his Illinois license, avoiding the loss of driving privileges.  While commercial drivers may still obtain licenses from multiple States, the Act makes the requirements for driving in different States more uniform and, more importantly, mandates a State-to-State network allowing one State to determine the driving record of the driver in another State.   While drivers may slip through the cracks, a driver who has lost his license in Illinois is more likely to be caught in Indiana, losing his Indiana license.


  • Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Regulations

The Federal Highway Safety Administration (FHWA), part of the Department of Transportation (US DOT) regulates motor carrier safety requirements.  There are State equivalents to these Federal agencies.    In recent years the Federal government has sought to reduce the budget of the FHWA.  Thus, recent proposals have been made to reduce the cost of managing the United States’ highways.  This has the effect of weakening the stringency of motor carrier safety requirements.  The specific programs to be cut are those that monitor the hours drivers have driven, which is limited to a specific number oh hours per day, (Data provided shortly) and driver qualifications (Data provided shortly).   In addition, the agency plans, in the future, to review the entire corpus of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.  The only assured change to the current law is the loosening of reporting requirements, which will translate into more drivers slipping through the cracks.  This could result in an increased number of improperly trained and fatigued drivers on the Nations’ roads.

Hazardous Materials Transportation
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, each year more than four billion tons of hazardous materials are hauled on U.S. roadways, some 500,000 daily shipments. In 1990, DOT received reports of about 8,500 mishaps in these shipments.

Gasoline, diesel and fuel oil shipments compromise more than 95 percent of all hazardous materials trips in the U.S. The federal government should establish standards for the transport of non-radioactive hazardous materials, especially of combustible fuels by tank trucks. (Adopted December 1992)

National Motor Carrier Safety Program
The Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP) was enacted in 1982 to help regulate the trucks on America’s highways and interstates.  The number of trucks that were inspected for safety violations of federal motor carrier safety regulations increased dramatically.  However, the violations of these regulations has not decreased dramatically due to increased enforcement.  Almost one-third of the inspections result in citations for vehicle equipment violations or driver service hours infractions.  To compound the problem, only a fraction of the trucks on the road are being inspected for safety violations, resulting in increased danger to non-commercial motorists.

However, in the TEA-21, the National Motor Carrier Safety Program (NMCSP) has been purportedly updated to “promote performance-based activities, provide flexibility for State grantees by allowing them to invest in areas providing the greatest potential for crash reduction based on their own circumstances, strengthen Federal and State enforcement tools, and provide innovative approaches to improving motor carrier compliance.” [1]  The Act also is designed to allow the creation of an information database that will monitor national motor carrier safety activities, making it easier to monitor problems and allow for future safety improvements.

The Act also mandates that States adopt and implement a performance-based for truck safety program by the year 2000.  Under the new version, States are provided funds for the enforcement of commercial motor vehicle safety and hazardous materials regulations.  Other State run programs eligible for federal funds are uniform roadside driver and vehicle safety inspections, traffic enforcement regulations, compliance reviews, and other complementary activities, which are determined by the FHWA.  “Setasides of up to 5 percent for national safety priorities and up to 5 percent for border safety enforcement are established. The Act authorizes a total of $579 million over the 6 years.” [2]

The National Motor Carrier Safety Program also expands the enforcement techniques available to regulatory officials.  The Act also closes loopholes in prior legislation.  The effectiveness of the new regulations is to be determined, but the specific enforcement sections of the Act are enumerated below for your information:

(1) Imposes mandatory shutdown on all unfit carriers, strengthening the authority of the Secretary to order unsafe motor carriers to cease operations.

(2) Requires the Secretary to develop an implementation plan to identify the procedures that would be followed (if Congress subsequently provided authority) to enforce safety regulations when violated by shippers and others.

(3) Removes barriers to effective application of penalties and establishes a $10,000 maximum penalty for all non-record keeping violations of the safety regulations.

(4) Amends the definition of commercial motor vehicle to reflect the actual gross vehicle weight rather than just the gross vehicle weight rating.

(5) Revises the authority of the Secretary to issue waivers and exemptions from safety regulations and Commercial Drivers’ License requirements and establishes procedures for exemption pilot programs. Safety prerequisites for exemptions and pilot programs are established.

[3]  It is believed that these new enforcement regulations will make it easier to protect the safety of citizens when traveling on America’s roads. [4]  To view the FHWA fact sheet on motor carrier safety under TEA-21, choose here.

What other factors contribute to truck safety (or non-safety)?

Truck Size and Weight Limits
The FHWA has recently completed a Truck Size and Weight Study.   To view the study home page, choose here.   The summary for Phase 1 of the Comprehensive Truck Size and Weight Study can be read here.  When further reports are published, we will link to them from this section of the trucking information fact sheet.

What the study says, in relation to the size and weight of trucks, is that the size of trucks has increased while cars have remained the same size, or been made smaller, and, until fairly recently, been made of materials of questionable durability to crashes.  The study specifically states that:

In 1975, the weight limits were raised, except that the bridge formula was imposed to insure that the vehicle load was distributed to avoid excessive overstressing of bridges. In 1982, minimum length limits were enacted for semi-trailers and trailers in twin-trailer combinations. The width limit was also increased from 96 to 102 inches. The current U.S. Federal TS&W law has the following limits:

20,000 pounds for single axles.
34,000 pounds for tandem axles.
Application of Bridge Formula B for other axle groups up to the maximum of 80,000 pounds for gross vehicle weight (GVW).
102 inches for vehicle width
48 feet (minimum) for semi-trailers in a semi-trailer combination
28 feet (minimum) for trailers in a twin-trailer combination.
[5]  Trucks are generally 48 feet in length, the federal minimum, but States can allow longer trucks where they deem it acceptable.  [6]  Thus “all States except Alaska and Rhode Island permit semi-trailers of at least 53 feet on at least some highways.” [7] To make matters worse, the Federal government allows two 28 foot trailers to be connected to a truck, as a minimum, allowing States to provide for longer combination trailers (up to 33 feet has been attempted). [8]  In addition, the acceptable width of trailers has been increased over the years, from 96 inches to 102 inches. [X]  The longer and larger trucks require better visibility and longer distances to pass trucks on roads, especially where not flat and long. [9]  While many think this is too large, or there should at least be a maximum length provided by the Federal government, it has been argued that “a Federal limit could stifle innovation and constrain productivity gains.” [10]   Trading safety for profit, at your expense.

The Federal length and width provisions discussed above were extended in 1982 to apply to Interstate System and the designated National Network (NN) for large trucks and related access roads. [11]


  • Ability to See Trucks at Night

Regulations governing truck lighting were adopted in the 1940s.   They are entirely inadequate at night, especially in adverse driving conditions.   Persons with poor vision, though allowed to drive, may be unable to see trucks until it is too late to avoid an accident.  However, as with brakes, unless the law is changed to address the problem of visibility of trucks at night, the availability of legal remedies is limited by the defense of compliance with the law, unless there are other intervening factors.


  • Brakes

To date, anti-lock brakes are not required in trucks.  As they provide for much safer stopping of vehicles in wet or icy conditions, they should be required.  The ability to prevent skids is extremely important when truck is carrying a full load, which will destroy any passenger vehicle that is topped before its path.   However, damages resulting from the failure of a truck to stop (from the lack of ant-lock brakes) is not a violation of the law and may, if there are no other intervening factors, preclude recovery.  Intervening factors include speeding and reckless behavior, causing the accident or resulting in a situation where the driver cannot avoid the accident (where it would have been otherwise possible for the incident to be averted).



1. TEA-21 – Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century – Moving Americans into the 21st Century, A SUMMARY – Improving Safety,

2. TEA-21 – Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century – Moving Americans into the 21st Century, A SUMMARY – Improving Safety,

3. TEA-21 – Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century – Moving Americans into the 21st Century, A SUMMARY – Improving Safety,

4. TEA-21 – Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century – Moving Americans into the 21st Century, A SUMMARY – Improving Safety,, (September 14, 1998).

5. Comprehensive Truck Size And Weight Study: Summary Report for Phase I–Synthesis of Truck Size and Weight (TS&W) Studies and Issues, Section 2.3 U.S. Federal Law, page 12; Federal Highway Administration;, (March 1995).

6. Id. at Section 4.2 Roadway Geometry and Traffic Operations, page 26.

7. Id. at Section 4.2 Roadway Geometry and Traffic Operations, page 26.

8. Id. at Section 4.2 Roadway Geometry and Traffic Operations, page 26.

9. Id. at Section 4.2 Roadway Geometry and Traffic Operations, page 28.

Cars passing longer combination vehicles on two lane roads could need up to 8 percent longer passing sight distances, compared to passing existing tractor semi-trailers. Longer and/or heavier trucks would require incrementally longer passing sight distances to safely pass cars on two-lane roads. In practice, safety conscious truck operators currently find it impractical to pass cars now in these situations, except under the most ideal conditions. Operators of longer/heavier vehicles would likely be inclined to follow this practice even more often.

10. Id. at Section 4.2 Roadway Geometry and Traffic Operations, page 26.

11.  Id. at Section 4.2 Roadway Geometry and Traffic Operations, page 3.

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