Around Mars Hill, N.C., truckers keep up a steady chatter of warnings on the CB about the weather, traffic, and "bears" – police – looking for overweight loads.
Even with 200 state truck inspectors out on the roads, some local-run truckers in Florida routinely overload their trailers and dump trucks, to make up for hard-to-find manpower and the $3.20 they pay for each gallon of diesel. In Pennsylvania, citizens complain about roads sagging and bridges groaning under the pressure from overweight trucks dodging interstate weigh stations.
The cat-and-mouse game between cheating truckers and state inspectors is intensifying on America's highways, especially as investigators continue to look for the cause of the Minneapolis bridge collapse in August. Critics say 50-ton trucks, protected by a powerful lobby, don't pay their fair share to fix aging and ailing infrastructure. But for some men and women driving big rigs, heavy loads on America's back roadways are just business as usual under current rules and economic circumstances, not to mention the pressures of keeping store shelves stocked with inexpensive goods.
"What we're experiencing is that [trucking companies and drivers] are consciously making a decision to run heavier and taking the risk of being caught instead of paying extra manpower costs or buying additional vehicles," says Sgt. John Fairchild, a North Carolina Highway Patrol spokesman in Asheville, whose troop spent three days last week hunting down too-heavy trucks near the Tennessee border.
Economists say the incentive to cheat is increasing as the trucking industry faces rising fuel costs, a rail-freight industry on the rebound, and, next July, the potential loosening of restrictions on truckers coming from Mexico.
"Increasing weight increases productivity, because they get a greater payload and, theoretically, it becomes more profitable," says Walter Rice, professor emeritus of economics at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. "But, obviously, what is happening is they're incurring social costs [including safety and wear-and-tear costs], even as there's an implied incentive to do it."
Truckers still have one key advantage: sympathetic lawmakers. The truckers' focused economic message tends to resonate more than ambiguous public concern, experts say.
For instance, even if trucks are found to be overweight, fines run only about 10 cents a pound – too light to curb behavior, critics say. In one example of the trucking industry's power, a North Carolina law allows trucks to run 10 percent heavier on fragile secondary roads than the 80,000 pounds gross weight limit out on the interstate – a nod to local economic interests.
Despite stepped up enforcement in many states, current law "communicates to the trucking industry that [running heavy] is not that big of a deal," says John Lannen, executive director of the pro-reform Truck Safety Coalition in Alexandria, Va.
Critics say heavy trucks are harder to stop and cause more damage when they do wreck.
Some 8 million tractor-trailers – each having the impact of about 5,000 cars – roll down American roads today, compared with about 2 million in the 1950s. Their impact on asphalt is exponential: One recent study of Maine's roadways showed that a 100,000 pound truck on six axles does twice the amount of road damage as an 80,000 pound truck on five axles. In addition, 30 percent of US trucks are overloaded, according to a study presented last year at a Federal Transportation Research Board conference.
"You've got honest truck drivers and companies that are hurt by it. Taxpayers are hurt by it. People are put at risk by it," says Mr. Lannen.
A variety of factors make it impossible to pinpoint whether truckers are paying their fair share for road and bridge improvements, says Dr. Rice. A US Department of Transportation study in 2000 showed that trucks carrying the legal limit of 80,000 pounds contribute 91 percent of their share of highway costs, while trucks weighing more than 100,000 pounds contribute 50 percent of their fair share.
Truckers say that's hooey. A trucker driving 100,000 miles a year will pay about $4,000 in fuel taxes on top of other fees and licenses compared with about $100 for an average commuter, says Larry Daniel, president of the American Independent Truckers' Association in Clinton, Miss. Still, he says, when truckers stray outside the law, it's a sign of marginal operators' poor management.
The most common tactic, he says, is to run when weigh stations are closed, which is one reason three times as many overweight trucks travel at night. Sometimes truckers will risk heavier fines by dodging an open weigh station.
"Weigh stations are static, so [lawbreakers] have to find the routes that will take them around that location," says Mr. Daniel. "When you do that, that's going to put your truck on a road that your truck typically doesn't drive on ... and it's risky."
There is constant pressure from shippers to overload, says Kevin, an Illinois truck driver at a truck stop on the I-285 in Atlanta. On this trip a California produce company overloaded his truck by 2,000 pounds. He had to ask for a crate to be unloaded to put him back at 80,000 pounds. Since truckers are ultimately responsible, most will say no to requests to carry heavier loads. But "like any industry, we've got our share of outlaws," he says.
Minnesota trucker Rick Mork says most firms, including the glass company he works for, have more to lose from running heavy loads. "You used to see a lot more heavy trucks 10 years ago than you do now," he says. "You don't gain much, and you incur that much more wear and tear on your truck."