Currently, semi trucks can legally operate at a weight of 80,000 pounds, including the truck and the cargo. A bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives would increase the legal weight by more than 20 percent to 97,000 pounds. The bill has been referred to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highway and Transit and the House Ways and Means Committee. At the time of its introduction, the bill seemed dead. But increasing the legal weight has become a controversial topic now that it appears legislators will attach the bill to another one to get it passed in the House.

In addition to the increased weight limits, the bill would require heavier trucks to have a sixth axle. This measure is supposed to maintain braking power despite the increased weight and keep wear and tear on the roads to a minimum by distributing the extra weight equally over all axles.

Opponents of the bill can be found driving down just about any highway next to already behemoth commercial trucks. A recent survey conducted by insurer AAA found that more than 90 percent of drivers do not believe heavier trucks should be allowed on the roads.

Many truck drivers are opposed to the bill as well. They have voiced their concerns about being able to handle the ultra-heavy trucks and the safety concerns that arise by increasing weight limits. Truckers are naturally concerned about their pocketbooks as well. By allowing more freight to be shipped legally in one load, fewer loads but more fuel per load will be needed.

Studies have shown that increased vehicle weights may actually decrease trucking accident fatalities. One study conducted in Wisconsin found that the bill would have actually prevented 90 truck-related accidents in 2006, as well as saved more than $150 million in costs to transportation companies. Britain has already increased the maximum legal weight for trucks to 97,000 pounds. Since increasing the weight limits in 2001, the country has enjoyed a 35 percent decline in truck-related fatalities.

The bill’s proponents also argue that the increased limits will have economic and environmental benefits. The trucking industry will become more efficient by allowing more freight to be transported in one load. The increased efficiency would lead to less exhaust emissions, overall savings on fuel, less traffic congestion, and savings on equipment and maintenance for shipping companies. Also, some research has found that the stopping distance will increase by only a few feet despite the heavier truck.

The National Private Truck Council is backing the bill and recently heard comments on it at its annual meeting. The director of logistics for a large American company pointed out that the volume of trucks on the road is increasing 11 times faster than the increase in road capacity. Allowing higher freight loads will help alleviate the problem by decreasing the number of needed trucks on the road. The bill awaits future action by Congress.