Critics raise cry as more tandem rigs get set to roll

''Welcome, killer trucks,'' proclaims a headline on the opinion page of the New York Times. ''It's a permit for homicide,'' warns another headline - this one in the Boston Globe.

''We'll all be held hostage to this oversight, and our safety on the highways will be diminished for years to come,'' predicts a news handout distributed by the Massachusetts chapter of the American Automobile Association (AAA).

What is all the fuss about? These sentiments, as it turns out, are based on the passage by Congress last December of the Surface Transportation Act of 1982, better known as the nickel-a-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax. A little-discussed provision in that act effectively overrides all state laws banning travel by tandem, or twin-trailer, trucks.

Currently 13 states, all in the Northeast and South, prohibit them, as does the District of Columbia. In other states, chiefly in the West, they have operated for as long as 30 years.

Beginning April 1, the huge rigs must be permitted on every Interstate highway, along with sections of other primary roads designated by the US secretary of transportation. In addition, they and their operators must be allowed access to fuel, repair, terminal, food, and lodging facilities - even if these should happen to be inside old and congested major cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

The prospect of seeing the extra-long trucks on steep, winding roads and narrow city streets, not to mention confining tunnels, worries highway safety advocates and municipal traffic planners alike.

''I think their concern is very well taken,'' says Gerald Donaldson of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington. ''You've got a formula for disaster on your hands.''

Yet the penalty for noncompliance with the new law is possible loss of federal highway funds. Given the expectation of millions of dollars in new federal money and thousands of new jobs to help repair roads and bridges, it is considered unlikely that any state will continue opposing the measure.

Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama now exclude tandem trucks. Massachusetts permits them only on its turnpike, between the New York line and the Boston city limits.

Opponents of the tandem trailers - also known as ''doubles'' - object not only to their greater length but also their greater frequency of involvement in fatal accidents. A 1981 study sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration (FHwA), using data gathered mainly in California and Nevada, found:

* ''Twin trailer combinations have a significantly higher accident rate than single tractor-trailer combinations.''

* ''Doubles have a significantly higher ton-mile accident-involvement rate than singles on urban freeways and rural nonfreeways.''

In its 1982 study, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined that in an accident involving a passenger car and a tandem trailer truck, the occupants of the car are 29 times more likely to be killed than the truck driver.

Once the new law takes effect, all states must permit twin trailers of at least 28 feet each in length. Hooked together by a 5-foot converter dolly and pulled by an 8-foot cab-over tractor, the total assembly would be 69 feet long. If the tractor were one with the cab behind, instead of over, the engine, the overall length could increase to nearly 80 feet.

Tandem-trailer trucks require three to four times the stopping distance that passenger cars do, Mr. Donaldson argues. In addition, Charles Brady of the AAA's highway department in Falls Church, Va., says: ''If you put 80,000 pounds on the . . . doubles (which have four single axles, plus the steering axle) as opposed to 80,000 pounds on an 18-wheeler (two sets of double axles, plus steering axle) , the effect is about 70 percent more damaging to the roads.''

Mr. Brady and others also contend that state excess-weight permit procedures will have to be watched carefully.

A truck operator is supposed to apply for permission to haul loads heavier than 80,000 pounds. But the permits are not hard to get, and some hard-pressed states enforce weight limits loosely. Moreover, opening up new roads to tandem trailers will make it easier than ever for truckers to dodge state scales, critics say. Thus, they fear gross weights may routinely climb to 95,000 pounds or more.

The American Trucking Associations (ATA), chief spokesman for the industry, maintains that just because tandem trailers soon will be allowed on Eastern roads doesn't mean there will be a sudden, huge influx of them.

ATA representatives John Reith and Will Johns predict that recession-ridden Eastern trucking firms will be slow to convert to the tandem units, and that units longer than 69 feet are unlikely any time soon because of the high cost of new, conventional tractors whose cabs are in back of the engines.

The organization also disputes arguments that the huge rigs will turn up on city streets and that gross weights will end up as high as 95,000 pounds.

''I just don't think you're going to see twin trailers in the city,'' Mr. Johns says. ''You might see one (trailer). But they are not a city vehicle.''

Permits for loads upward of 80,000 pounds are likely to remain in demand only for single-trailer rigs, Johns claims, adding: ''Most of these (tandem) vehicles are handling light loads, miscellaneous freight materials.'' These, he says, tend to be in the 55,000- to 60,000-pound range.

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