What You Should Know About Trucking And Load Types

Truck drivers are often left on their own - not just on the road, but when it comes to figuring out the legal ramifications of improperly hauling freight. Vehicle-related problems account for about 10 percent of serious truck accidents. Oversized loads or improperly loaded trucks cause many of those vehicle-related accidents.

Understanding Truck Loads And Their Limits

In California, a truck that looks like it may exceed the load limit can be pulled over at any time by the California Highway Patrol. If that happens, authorities can measure the size of the load, send the truck to a weigh station or demand to see the oversized load permits. Weights that exceed the permitted limits can lead to fines, and a truck may not be allowed to proceed until the load is brought into compliance. Also, failing to use the right truck for the right job, or loading a truck improperly, can lead to serious penalties and put the driver at greater risk of an accident.

Each type of truck freight requires a different type of truck for hauling it. For example:

  • Dry van trucks are trucks with enclosed, non-refrigerated trailers. This is the most common type of hauler, and the dry goods they carry are the most common type of freight. The standard length of a dry van trailer is 53 feet. Retailers and wholesalers rely on dry vans to keep merchandise protected from road debris, rain and snow. Everything from furniture to canned foods and electronics is shipped in dry van trailers. But, although the trailer itself provides some stability, it's crucial that it's loaded properly. If the cartons and pallets aren't sealed correctly and stacked the right way, the freight can topple. A sudden shift in weight within the dry van trailer can cause the truck to overturn.
  • Refrigerated trucks, or "reefer trucks," carry food and other goods that aren't shelf-stable. Items needing a reefer truck include frozen foods, fresh produce, beverages, insulin and other medical goods, and even hazardous materials. The truck's trailer is temperature controlled to ensure individual goods are transported at the right temperatures for those items. Obviously, a failure to do so can cause damage to foods and medicine. It can even make some chemicals combustible.
  • Tanker trucks usually have a cylinder shape and carry fuel and other liquids. They're filled and emptied with powerful hoses. Several different types of tanker truck trailers are used commercially; different fuels and chemicals require different types of venting systems and container linings. Tanker trailers also vary in terms of whether they are pressurized or nonpressurized and insulated or non-insulated. Some trailers have more than one internal compartment to carry multiple liquids. If a semi-trailer system is used, the engine type and electrical systems may be critical to avoid combustibility with the freight itself. Obviously, putting the wrong liquid freight into the wrong tanker truck can spell disaster.
  • Dump truck trailers have lifts and specialized open-top containers that allow loose material to be unloaded through the use of the lift. They can be used for garbage and for landscaping materials like topsoil and wood chips, among other uses. It's crucial that trucking companies don't put dangerous materials in these open-top trailers. The dump truck trailers also shouldn't be overpacked. This keeps the truck stable and materials from falling onto the road.
  • Flatbed trucks don't have an enclosed trailer. Instead, a long flat wheeled deck is hitched to the back of the cab. This design allows large and bulky items to be lowered to the flatbed by crane, or lifted onto it by forklift. With no sides or top to contain the freight, properly securing the items is obviously critical. Locking devices, wrapped pallets, straps and tarps are the most common methods of keeping freight secured on a flatbed. If the freight itself is wider than standard regulations (usually 8.5 feet), special lights and flags are required to alert other drivers that it is an oversized load. If any of these securing or warning precautions are omitted, the oversized load poses a danger to the general public.
  • Step deck trucks are much like flatbeds, except that the majority of the deck is a "step" lower to the road than is typical on flatbeds. Haulers choose step deck trucks when carrying tall items. The lower center of gravity helps stabilize these taller loads, while also providing more clearance under bridges. As with flatbeds, failure to secure the goods can lead to weight shifts or loss of freight during transit.
  • Auto carriers, as their name suggests, haul cars, trucks and other vehicles. They use an open trailer system, with platforms and ramps to allow stacking, loading and unloading. Because they carry such heavy loads - with each vehicle weighing at least two tons - it's crucial that these carriers be loaded and secured with precision.

How Truck Overloads Can Cause Accidents

Causes of truck accidents tend to be grouped into broad categories. Improper loading, for example, can encompass anything from not tying a load down properly to transporting an oversized load. Overloaded enclosed trailers also pose dangers to both the truck driver and the vehicles sharing the road with that truck. If too much weight is put on one side of the truck, or the cargo suddenly shifts, the trailer is at risk of jackknifing.

Why Are Trucks Dangerously Overloaded?

If you drive commercial vehicles, you understand the pressure truck drivers face from trucking companies, shippers and those who are waiting for the goods. From the point of view of those who are paying for the transport, cutting corners can save big money. Some may want to try to get past the use of a travel escort vehicle. Others opt to overload one truck rather than paying for two drivers, two trucks and two fuel bills. There's also the question of transport efficiency. If the shipper schedules several deliveries, it's more efficient to put the first delivery recipient's goods in the back of the truck, and so forth.

In other cases, time constraints put pressure on the driver and crew to get the truck loaded and on the road, rather than waiting for oversize permits to be approved - or even for the load to be balanced and secured safely. Regulations about how long the driver can be on the job might also tempt employers to ignore safe loading practices that take more time.

Yet it's the truck driver and other drivers on the road who often pay the price for oversized loads that aren't properly secured, marked or escorted, or trucks that are carrying freight for which they weren't designed. To decrease the risk, truck drivers are urged to report any shippers or employers who engage in unsafe transportation practices.

For passenger car commuters, educating yourself about what an overloaded truck looks like, and how it should operate, can help you avoid collisions. Even if a vehicle is properly marked and escorted, it's a good idea to give it plenty of room and avoid trying to pass it until it is absolutely safe to do so. If the truck appears to have a load that's extra-wide, even if it doesn't have warning lights or an escort vehicle, keep your distance. Consider reporting the oversize load as soon as it is safe to do so. Likewise, freight that is so tall that it appears unstable, or which doesn't appear to be tied down properly, should be both avoided and reported.

Avoiding Citations For Oversized Loads

If you're an independent contractor and plan on using online load boards to find clients, there are some considerations to keep in mind. Because freight must often cross state lines, most of what constitutes a wide or oversized load stays the same in much of the country. Make sure that potential jobs you find on load boards follow these standard regulations.

Here are some questions to keep in mind before accepting a load board job so that you aren't cited for improperly hauling these loads:

  • Is the shipper going to provide a travel escort? For most states, a load that is wider than 12 feet will require a pilot vehicle. This travel escort is tasked with making sure that other drivers know to give the truck a wide berth. They also look out for hazards specific to wide loads and oversize freight, such as low bridges and construction zones. Whether you're arranging a travel escort or one will be provided, the shipper should be aware of this need and be prepared to pay the associated costs.
  • Are all the permits in place? Your oversized load will require a permit in each state. Each permit spells out the hours and days you and the travel escort can be on the road in that state, and designates which route you should take. Don't make the mistake of setting out on a long haul without obtaining oversize permits because it could get you into legal trouble.
  • Do you have the needed markings with you? Know the local regulations about the flags and lights your trucks will need when it exceeds height or width restrictions. Make sure that the travel escort also has these markings, if required.
  • Do you know what's considered oversized at every point of your route? If you've found a shipping job through an online load board or other independent contractor resource before, you already know that not all clients understand what makes their freight standard or oversized. Whether the flatbed will be provided or yours will be used, the customer needs to determine beforehand if the freight will be oversized and needs special permits and escorts. In most states, it's a wide load if the freight is over 8.5 feet, and a wide load requiring travel escorts if the width exceeds 12 feet. In terms of other dimensions, anything over 8.5 in height is oversized, as is a load longer than 53 feet - although some states have a lower limit for length. In terms of weight, it will depend on the size of the truck. If you go on bridges, the gross weight will be critical. But you may also need to know the per-axle weight limits.
  • Do you know what your truck weighs when empty? It may seem obvious, but the only way to know if you're exceeding the weight limit is to weigh the truck once it's loaded. In order to calculate the actual freight load, you'll need to subtract the weight of the non-loaded truck.

Of course, following these regulations also helps lower your risk of an accident while underway.

How To Make Sure Your Load Is Even

Whether oversized or standard, freight can be hazardous when it's unevenly loaded. If you're doing the loading yourself, you can control that to some extent with careful loading. If you receive an already-loaded trailer, it's important to do some checking before you hit the road.

Weight-per-axle is a crucial element to keep in mind. The standard is no more than 34,000 pounds per axle. California has an additional regulation that limits how far apart the axles can be. The truck should be loaded keeping these factors in mind.

In general, keeping the loads lighter at the ends of the deck - where the axles are - is a good idea. Put the heavier loads in the middle. That usually means that when you're double-decking cartons or pallets, those double stacks will be in the middle, and single loads toward the front and back. Needless to say, you should try to make sure that when you have a row across the width of the truck, the weight should be distributed as evenly as possible on the driver and passenger sides.

But what if you're picking up pre-loaded freight? There is still a way to ensure your safety on the road - not to mention to make sure complying with federal and state regulations. If you're driving a flatbed or step deck truck, measure the width, height and length, and determine the per-axle weight, before accepting the freight. If you find that one or more of the axles is overweight, move the cargo toward the center of the load and then weigh the truck again.

What Can Truck Drivers Cited For Dangerous Loads Do?

If you're a truck driver who was stopped for driving a dangerously-loaded vehicle, or who was in an accident involving a dangerous load, it's important to contact a legal team experienced in the trucking industry. You may have been pressured to take a dangerous load or been misled about the freight contents. Do not accept responsibility until you gather evidence concerning other parties who may have had a more direct responsibility for the trucking violations than you did.

What Can Accident Victims Of Dangerously-Loaded Trucks Do?

There is legal recourse for people who are in accidents involving commercial trucks that have dangerous loads. Whether you were in another car that collided with the truck or its contents, or you are a truck driver who didn't realize that the freight was problematic, you have a right to seek personal injury damages for your losses.

At the Girardi | Keese law firm, our experienced trucking accident lawyers will review your case and help you determine whether the responsible party or parties include the trucking company, the shipper or even the agency that erroneously issued permits allowing the overloaded truck to be on the highways. Call us at 800-401-4530 or send us an email for a free initial consultation.