3 unions, truckers back bill to better inspect trailers

Safety issue is raised about vehicles used to haul ship containers

October 28, 2003|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Ervin Oakley heads the local union that maintains trucking equipment at the port of Baltimore, but he gets nervous each time a tractor-trailer is driven off the lot.

In spite of his work, he and others who drive or own the trucks contend that many trailers that leave the nation's ports carrying cargo containers are unfit for the highways. Years of maintenance cutbacks and weak laws have caused the trailers, known as chassis, to become unsafe. The most common result is a wheel coming off at top speed.

Three major unions are supporting a House bill that would tighten the federal rules for inspections before trailer chassis hit the roads carrying tens of thousands of pounds of cargo, a potentially costly move that opponents say is unnecessary.

The unions are the Teamsters, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the International Longshoremen's Association. Another supporter is the American Truckers Associations.

The unions plan to make their case at a news conference today outside Seagirt Marine Terminal, through which the majority of cargo containers that end up on trucks or rail lines in Maryland are imported.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Henry E. Brown Jr., a South Carolina Republican, has 16 congressional co-sponsors, including Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the Baltimore County Democrat.

"I don't want to scare the public," said Oakley, president of International Longshoremen's Association Local 1429. "But I get a little uneasy when I come up on a tractor-trailer on the highway or in a tunnel."

The issue pits the trucking interests, who think they bear the brunt of the costs through highway citations and accidents, against steamship lines that own many of the estimated 750,000 chassis nationwide.

Opponents of the legislation, including seaports, railroads and shippers such as manufacturers and retailers, think the proposed requirements would lead to costs and delays that would pose a heavy burden on their business.

No industry statistics are available to support claims that the trailer chassis are unsafe, said Jeff Lawrence, general counsel for the Ocean Carriers Equipment Management Association, which is sponsored by steamship lines. He called for more study.

"What this is seeking to do is impose a requirement to have on an annual basis 50 or more inspections of equipment, while federal law now requires one," he said. "The resulting cost we estimate to be well in excess of $1 billion and probably closer to $2 billion. It will also lead to substantial congestion at terminals, port and rail, and we don't even know if there is a problem."

The bill's supporters acknowledge the absence of statistics but point to news accounts of trailer wheels hitting automobiles. Based on anecdotal evidence from drivers, they estimate that wheels comes off moving tractor-trailers at a rate of about one a week, said Jim Stewart, a representative of the Teamsters, the union that represents truck drivers.

Data from the Maryland State Highway Administration show that more than 6,800 accidents of all kinds last year involved tractor-trailers. The number of police citations issued for mechanical problems was not immediately available.

Unions and trucking companies say efforts to save money on maintenance have reduced annual inspections of the trailer chassis by the steamship lines and also resulted in changes to the lubricants used to keep wheel and brake parts in working order.

The most common problem is dry parts that rub and cause enough friction to start a fire and melt bolts holding the wheels on the chassis, Stewart said.

The chassis are visually inspected once a year, but often problems behind the wheels cannot be detected, Stewart said. Chassis can also be inspected if a trucker notes a problem, but he said truckers are too hard-pressed to stay on delivery schedules to seek repairs.

Requirements that owners more frequently and thoroughly inspect all chassis would take the decision out of the truckers' hands and create uniform rules across the country, he said.

The opposition "says this is too costly and time-consuming," Stewart said. "When will they do something, after how many families are killed on the highway?"

A spokesman for Brown, the congressman sponsoring the bill, said talks between the two sides to work out an agreement on additional measures had broken down.

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