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 do 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 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."
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.