ANNAPOLIS -- Ready or not, bigger trucks may be rumbling into Maryland.
This week the House of Delegates is expected to approve legislation allowing trucks to haul 53-foot semitrailers, 5 feet longer than currently permitted. Such trailers are, for means of comparison, about the same length as 3 1/3 Honda Accords parked end to end.
The trucking bill has been a perennial issue in Annapolis. Opponents have questioned whether the long trailers are safe or as maneuverable as their 48-foot counterparts, making wider turns, jumping curbs and potentially causing more accidents.
But Thursday, trucking interests finally won out. The bill's biggest roadblock in the past, the House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee, approved it on a lopsided 19-2 vote, and full General Assembly approval seems certain.
"The economic times are a factor this year, and so is concern about the business climate in Maryland," said Del. Donald C. Fry, D-Harford, the legislation's sponsor. "We've had a bad rap about not being pro-business. This shows that's not necessarily true."
Maryland is one of only four states in the continental United States that does not permit 53-foot trailers. The others all are in traffic-congested New England -- Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Supporters argue that the 48-foot restriction has given Maryland firms a competitive disadvantage, particularly those companies that ship light and bulky products.
Take McCormick & Co. Inc., for instance. The company's Hunt Valley plant often ships seasoning mixes and packets of gravy in cartons that weigh only 2 or 3 pounds each, said David L. Jordan, the plant's distribution manager.
As a result, trailers with such light cargo generally fill up before they reach their weight limit. Expanding the trailers by 5 feet will not cost the company any money and ultimately should save it shipping costs.
"We're not shipping pig iron," Mr. Jordan said. "Our shipping patterns are customer-driven. We have to be able to fit their orders onto the trucks."
Officials of Westvaco Corp., which operates a paper mill in Allegany County and dispatches 80 to 100 trucks each day, have found the 48-foot limit to be a hardship for the carriers it hires.
The change would give the Western Maryland company greater flexibility because trucking companies won't have to worry that a trailer they use in a neighboring state can't pass through Maryland.
"It won't mean that all our carriers will switch to 53-foot trucks overnight," said Fred Hadra, the plant's distribution manager. "But it could help us keep our costs down."
State transportation officials and trucking industry leaders claim that making trucks longer will make the roads safer by reducing the number of trucks on the highways.
Safety precautions mandated by the bill would ensure that a truck with a 53-foot trailer would have the same turning radius and be just as safe as one towing a 48-foot trailer, said Drew Cobbs, a lobbyist with the state Department of Transportation.
Other mandated safety features include an under-ride guard on the rear of the semitrailer to make sure that automobiles that collide with the trucks don't slip under the truck bed.
The bill, which would take effect Oct. 1, would also restrict 53-foot trailers to interstate highways and access routes designated by the state transportation secretary.
"The 53-foot trailer is not going to become a standard for the industry," said Walter Thompson, executive vice president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association. "It will still be used by a minority of firms, only those who must ship light and bulky material."
The American Automobile Association chapter in suburban Washington opposed the bill this year, as did independent truckers who feared that the legislation would only lessen their workload.
The two dissenting committee votes were cast by Montgomery County legislators.
"Regardless of what people say, they are more difficult to maneuver," said Rita Bontz, president of the Independent Truckers and Drivers Association in Baltimore. "The real concern we have is that 53-footers are not the end. Next are the 57-footers already permitted in some other states."
The committee's action was the second of two significant votes involving the trucking industry last week. The panel defeated legislation that would have placed a limit on the axle loads of dump trucks.