On April 10, 2014, a FedEx truck pulling two 28-foot trailers crossed over the median on I-5 near Orland, Calif., slamming into a bus carrying high school students from Los Angeles on their way to tour a college.

The collision caused a massive fireball and plumes of black smoke. Ten people were killed, including five students, and 39 were injured.


Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. In one of the most prominent examples, last year a Wal-Mart truck abruptly swerved on the New Jersey Turnpike, slamming into comedian Tracy Morgan’s limousine, severely injuring him and killing a passenger.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reports that accidents involving large trucks killed 3,941 people in 2013.

These deaths serve as a reminder that when it comes to regulating our highways, safety must be our top priority.

Unfortunately, the Senate Appropriations Committee recently approved an amendment to allow even longer trailer trucks on our highways. This provision stands in stark contrast to highway safety, putting the profits of trucking companies ahead of personal safety.

The amendment, approved in June as part of consideration of the bill to fund the Department of Transportation, would change federal law and require states to allow trucks with two 33-foot trailers onto their highways.

Including the cab and both trailers, this configuration means trucks that stretch longer than 83 feet would share the road with passenger vehicles. That’s the equivalent of more than six car lengths and full 10-feet longer than the double 28-foot trailers currently permitted nationwide.

Simply put, it’s hard to imagine how we are serving public safety by allowing for trucks that are the equivalent of an eight-story building on wheels.

These longer trucks will require an additional 20 feet to stop, further fatigue our crumbling bridges and highways and divert even more freight shipments from rail onto our already-congested roads.  All this, and the Department of Transportation has warned Congress that it doesn’t even have enough data yet to say that such a change would be safe.

I vocally opposed this amendment in the Appropriations Committee and, so long as it carries this provision, I will oppose the entire transportation funding bill if it reaches the Senate floor. I also urge the president to veto the bill if it comes before him for signature.

The Appropriations Committee is charged with setting federal spending levels, not making sweeping changes to state and federal law. Proponents of the change are trying to use the Appropriations Committee process to slip through a major modification without the rigorous debate it deserves. For example, holding hearings on the issue would allow us to better understand the safety and economic implications.

The problems with this amendment are many.  

Most importantly, we don’t yet know the implications of this change to law. Experts at the Department of Transportation advised the Appropriations Committee that there is not sufficient data to draw firm conclusions. As a result, they recommended that “no changes in the relevant truck size and weight laws and regulations [be] considered.” This recommendation was disregarded by the committee. In fact, another provision in the bill would cut short the public comment period and peer review process for this technical study.

The statistics we do have paint a troubling picture. Twin 28-foot trailers, like the one in the Orland tragedy, have a 15 percent higher fatal crash rate than single-trailer trucks. Meanwhile, twin 33-foot trailers would require an additional 20 feet to stop and require an additional four feet of clearance around corners.

Increasing truck size will render more of our bridges unusable. The Department of Transportation estimates that more than 2,500 bridges would require strengthening or replacement as a result of this amendment, costing more than $1 billion. Bridges will endure up to 17 percent greater fatigue and maintenance costs for highway pavement will increase by up to 2.7 percent as a result of these longer trucks.

This proposed change would also upend the freight transportation industry, shifting the economics of shipping goods in favor of the largest trucking companies, those that can afford to upgrade their fleets. This would grossly disadvantage smaller competitors. The Department of Transportation estimated this change would trigger a shift of nearly 600 million tons of freight per year from smaller trucks and rail onto the new twin 33-foot configuration. Industry leaders wrote to the Appropriations Committee last month noting that the change would “make it very difficult for small trucking companies, which are the heart of our industry, to compete.” 

Jackie Gillan, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, described these new longer trucks as “dangerous and deadly,” adding that the new law would be “a lethal assault on public safety by special trucking interests.”

The Teamsters Union opposed this amendment too, arguing that our highways are not designed for the larger configurations. The union recently wrote that the amendment “amounts to nothing more than a mockery of our nation’s highway safety programs at the behest of special interests.”

Dozens of law enforcement organizations that patrol our highways and keep motorists safe, including police associations from Maine to Mississippi to Missouri as well as the National Trooper Coalition, representing state troopers in 38 states, oppose this amendment.  

It makes no sense to allow longer trucks when the trucks already on the road are not safe enough. Congress has a duty to increase public safety when possible; we certainly should not be making our highways more treacherous.

Feinstein is California’s senior senator, serving since 1992. She sits on the Appropriations; the Intelligence; the Judiciary; and the Rules and Administration committees.