Super long trucks may be headed for a road near you. Are they safe?
This winter, North Dakota legislators are expected to consider several pieces of legislation to move forward with so-called road trains, uncapping the length and weight requirements for big rig trailers on the state's highways.
BISMARCK — They’re about the weight of a full-grown blue whale and more than twice the length. They blow fumes from exhaust pipes and guzzle fuel at six miles a gallon. “Road trains,” as they’re often called, are a lot like your standard semi-trailer truck, just a whole lot bigger.
A chain of two, three, four and sometimes more full-length trailers hooked up to a single semi-tractor, these monster machines are illegal in most parts of the world. But in one corner of the globe, the barren Australian Outback, they've been roaming the roads for almost a hundred years.
These Australian road trains often run more than double the legal length limit of American trucks. They can easily span more than 175 feet and weigh in at over 400,000 pounds. And on the private roads managed by Australian mining companies, common in the western part of the country, their length is uncapped, resulting in trailer chains that don't look so different from an actual locomotive.
But road trains aren’t just a fantasy out of "Mad Max" or the Aussie Wild West. Soon, they could share lanes with you on Interstate 94.
This winter, state legislators are expected to consider a bill that they could send straight to Gov. Doug Burgum, calling on him to initiate a road train pilot program by executive order, an action that would turn North Dakota into the only state in the country to allow the platooning of full-length truck trailers.
Legislators will also look at a resolution that would seek cooperation from neighboring states to initiate a regional road train pilot program, turning the federally-managed interstate highways of the upper Great Plains into a trial zone for America’s first truck platoons.
“We have an opportunity to not only move freight more efficiently here, but also safer, and also cleaner for the environment," said Sen. Larry Luick, R-Fairmount, who is spearheading the regional pilot program legislation and who has championed road trains in North Dakota for nearly a decade.
But his pet project, some argue, would put North Dakota drivers at risk.
“The idea of even longer and heavier trucks on North Dakota roads should scare any resident,” the D.C.-based Coalition Against Bigger Trucks wrote in a statement to The Forum, arguing that “pilot projects turn motorists into guinea pigs and roads into test tracks."
Luick, who says he's been driving big rigs since he was 12 years old — "down to Minneapolis and back" — remembers that the trucks of his youth could haul a net weight of 50,000 pounds on low-grade horsepower engines managing 12 or 14 miles to the gallon. By contrast, today’s trucks are hauling the same 50,000 pounds on much bigger engines and getting just four to seven miles to the gallon. At the same time, the United States is suffering from a shortage of truck drivers — some 60,000 drivers nationwide, according to a 2018 study.
“The efficiency of what we’re doing on the road today has gone backward on us,” Luick said. “We’ve got these tractors that have these huge engines in them, but they aren’t being utilized." According to Luick, introducing road trains could drastically overhaul the efficiency of the North Dakota trucking industry, compressing what is now accomplished in two, three or four trips into just one.
'It has to be safe'
Luick hopes to get buy-in from neighboring states like Minnesota and South Dakota, whose flat landscapes and sparse populations make them attractive road train test sites, alliances that could give the program traction in Washington. Luick says Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., has promised him to advocate for the regional pilot in Congress if North Dakota passes state-level legislation first, and federal approval would open up access to interstate roads like I-29 and I-94.
But Luick stresses that a pilot program would be a baby step — North Dakota isn't going to look like western Australia anytime soon.
“I’m not into just making a very long unit on the roadway. It has to be practical, and it has to be safe, and it has to be efficient,” he said. The three-trailer road trains that Luick envisions would clock in at around 200 feet and 360,000 pounds, he estimated, but truck weight per axle would not change, since road trains simply load more weight onto more axles. And in all likelihood, a pilot would only introduce one or two road trains to North Dakota roads, usually running empty, “just to get people aware that something like this is out there and to start being observant — just a different looking machine on the highway.”
If the pilot program goes through, the North Dakota Department of Transportation and North Dakota Highway Patrol would be responsible for governing new weight and length limits, have the power to pull trucks off the roads in inclement weather, and could confine their operations to low-traffic hours in the early morning.
Still, some say that just opening the door to road trains is a dangerous decision.
Opponents of bigger trucks point to a 2016 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which found that in three states with statistically significant data, Washington, Idaho and Michigan, crash rates were much higher for six-axle trucks, versus lighter-weight five-axle trucks: by 40% in Washington, 97% in Idaho and 400% in Michigan. A 2018 report by the North Dakota Department of Transportation also indicates that crashes involving trucks have gone up in recent years, from about 700 in 2008 to 1,300 in 2018, a 77% increase.
"It scares me to death to think that this would take place out on our nation's highway," said Don Smith, a former sheriff of Putnam County, New York, and a member of the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks' law enforcement board. "Between the statistics and plain old common sense and Newton's Second Law — force equals mass times acceleration — I have to tell you, it's just not a good idea. It's a very dangerous idea."
Trailers in heavy winds
But Wayde Swenson, the office of operations director at the state Department of Transportation, who has closely monitored road train hearings in North Dakota, said the kinds of trailers that would be used on road trains are safer than the sorts used for package shipments by companies like UPS and FedEx, which tend to shift and sway under heavy winds.
Swenson noted that OK'ing a pilot program at the federal level would likely lead to a safer outcome, since North Dakota's wide interstates are more equipped to handle big trucks than its smaller state-managed roads. But the data on the comparative crash rates and safety of bigger trucks is thin, he said, and many questions about the effects of road trains can't be answered without testing them.
"Until you do it you won’t really know,” Swenson said. “What does that look like? How does the wind affect it? What does the public think of coming on a tractor trailer when you have three trailers behind it?”
In North Dakota, there's also the unanswered question of what road trains would mean for the movement of oil. The 2018 NDDOT study found a concentration of truck crashes in the Oil Patch, but Luick says that, at least for the near future, road trains wouldn't be allowed to carry oil or other hazardous materials.
"There's no sense in us getting into a pilot program here that says we're gonna start shipping gas around the state," Luick said. "No, you don't want to do that."
But if a pilot program works well, that could be a different story. If it works, then, North Dakota could start seeing more road trains, some hauling as many as four full-length trailers, and maybe even some moving oil.
"I already know it will," Luick said of the pilot succeeding. "There's a reason that they're using it down in Australia since before World War I."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.