In this two-part series, we look at the state and federal trucking regulations from a weight standpoint. The first installment discussed state efforts to mandate electric vehicles (EVs), specifically electric trucks. In this second part, we examine the impending federal rulemaking on side underride guards.

Whatever the purpose of a trucking regulation, such as cleaner air or motorist safety, all regulations come with a cost. That cost may be the time and focus motor carriers and truck drivers must apply to stay in compliance. The regulatory price may include training, administrative, and reporting changes or the rewriting of carrier employee manuals and contracts with outside labor.

When the regulation impacts truck equipment, the costs naturally include the purchase price of the newly-mandated equipment, its installation, and the ongoing maintenance over its useful life. Often overlooked, though, are the impacts on the trucking business model.

As we said in part one, it’s basic economics: supply and demand. In truck combinations, the supply side is volume and weight. Net weight, the weight of hauled cargo, is the difference between the maximum or gross weight allowed under law and the empty or tare weight of the truck combination itself.

Regulations that add weight to a trucking combination effectively restrict the net weight available to carry cargo (the demand side). When the “supply side” net weights are reduced, either freight rates must go up or trucking profit margins go down to accommodate the “demand side” cargo. At some point, shrinking net weights may require more trucks to haul freight. In the highly competitive trucking industry, that would squeeze slim profit margins even more.

Side underride guards are intended to protect motorists when their passenger car hits a truck trailer or semitrailer from the side. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently sent an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) on side underride guards to the White House Office of Management and Budget. OMB must approve it before NHTSA publishes the ANPRM in the Federal Register and makes it available for public comment.

Until the ANPRM is published, we won’t know to what degree the proposed side underride guards must withstand the impact of a car. Thus, we do not yet know how strong and heavy the side underride guards must be.

We know that when Congress considered legislation requiring side underride guards, the discussion focused on test crashes at 35 mph. At that level of impact, side underride guards provide more protection than the “lateral protective devices” common in Europe, meant to prevent pedestrians and cyclists from entering the space under a truck trailer. They are also not the very light-weight airflow deflectors seen on semitrailers in the U.S. as a fuel efficiency measure.

One manufacturer of side underride guards says its devices would add 450-800 pounds to a trailer or semitrailer. That would reduce a truck combination’s net weight by 450-800 pounds. It could also mean an increase of 450-800 pounds a truck tractor would be required to pull, no matter the amount of cargo on board the trailing unit. Again, without the NHTSA proposal, we do not know if 450-800 pounds will suffice.

Soon, NHTSA will propose side underride guards federally. Already, cities such as Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, and San Francisco require side underride guards on city-owned truck fleets. So, this may be the trucking combination of the near future: a trailer weighing maybe 800 pounds more, pulled by an electric tractor more than 5,300 pounds heavier than a diesel-powered tractor. What could this mean for cargo? Trucks wouldn’t be able to carry as much as in the past.

The PrePass blog and podcasts are published as a public service of PrePass®, the most reliable and technologically advanced weigh station bypass and integrated electronic trucking toll payment platform in North America. PrePass also includes INFORM™ Safety and INFORM™ Tolling software for improving truck safety scores and lowering toll costs.

Photo: IIHS