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California - a different world

Don & Debbe Morrow
OOIDA Member Columnists

Driving a truck in California is NOT business as usual. If the geography and weather extremes don’t catch you unprepared, the serious restrictions and aggressive enforcement probably will.

Hopefully, the following points will help commercial drivers be better prepared for the challenges that California presents.

Restrictions by Road Classification

STAA trucks with a single trailer
Semi trailer = 48-foot maximum
KPRA = no limit 
Combination length = no limit
Semi trailer = over 48-foot but 53-foot maximum 
KPRA = 40-foot maximum for two or more axles, 38-foot for single-axle trailers
Combination length = no limit

“California legal” trucks with a single trailer
Semi trailer = no limit
KPRA = 40-foot maximum for two or more axles; 38-foot for single-axle trailers
Combination length = 65-foot maximum

Weigh stations
The volume of truck traffic necessitates most weigh stations be multiple lane operations.

Normal operating procedure is for the left lane(s) to be reserved for empty trucks rolling across at 5 mph.

The right lane(s) are for loaded trucks, which are expected to roll across at 3 mph. Always look for and follow posted signs or officer directions.

Out-of-state trucks are subject to emissions tests. These are conducted at the weigh stations.

Weigh stations are operated by California Highway Patrol officers. We have had more Level I inspections in California than all other states combined. There are two basic reasons:

  • Very aggressive enforcement;
  • Our driving habits.

Normally, with an early morning delivery in Sacramento or the San Francisco Bay area, we spend the night before in Sparks, NV. Near the top of Donner Pass is the Truckee weigh station. Officers are not very busy at 1 a.m., so about 50 percent of the time, we are pulled in for a Level I inspection.

In addition to weigh stations, commercial drivers in California can expect to stop several more times at agricultural inspection stations and immigration check points.

Don’t be caught off guard
California has the shortest kingpin to rear axle setting in the nation, for good reasons. Many of the ramps are so short and tight that when you stop at the end of a ramp, you hope your trailer is off the freeway. Many exits do not have room for a truck to park, even for a few minutes. Finding room to maneuver and get back on the freeway is not always easy.

Use of four-way hazard lights is allowed only when stopped or to warn of a traffic hazard ahead. They are not to be used when pulling a grade.

The CB channel commonly used is 19 for east/west roads and 17 for north/south roads.

Starting in 2005, it will be illegal to idle a diesel engine for more than five minutes. Sleeper berth operations are exempt.

Bring your smokes and fuel with you. Prices in California will make you think twice before buying either one.

The state has split speeds with trucks limited to 55 mph.

Like other parts of the country, the larger cities want the freight we haul, but they don’t want big trucks. Plan your stops carefully. Truck stops are few and far between. San Diego is a good example. If you are coming from the east on I-8, the closest truck stop is at El Centro, more than 100 miles away. Generally speaking, we have found LA freeways to be busy 24 hours a day. With so many trucks in the area, LA drivers work well with big trucks.

There are several serious mountain grades on routes in California. Donner and the grapevine are infamous, but there are many more. It is not unusual for steep grades to run for 20-plus miles. These long, steep grades are not the place for novice drivers to develop their mountain driving skills.

Road information
Current road information is available by calling 1-800-427-7623 or (916) 445-7623 from outside the state. For info on Donner Pass, call 1-877-687-6237 (may be accessed from Reno).

The bay area uses the 5-1-1 information system. A truck network map is available. This map is one of the best we’ve seen. The information is absolutely critical if you operate off the network. On the Web, visit for the truck map.

The Internet map is divided into 12 district maps. Each of the 12 maps is kept current and will print out on 81¼2 x 11 paper. They are easy to read. Hard copies of the map are available by calling (916) 654-5741. The hard copy was last updated in October 2002, so you also need the amendments to be sure your information is current.

Road classification
California has four basic road classifications off the network.

Terminal Access (TA)

The TA routes are state and local roads. STAA trucks may travel on state highways that exhibit this sign.

California Legal (State)

California Legal (State) classifications are state routes that allow California legal-sized trucks. Surface Transportation Assistance Act trucks are not allowed. No signs are posted.

Service Access (SA)

In California, SA routes are state and local roads that allow access up to one mile, to terminals and facilities for fuel, food, lodging and repair, when consistent with safe operation.

California Legal Advisory

California legal trucks are allowed but not advised if KPRA is over posted value. Advisories range from 30 to 38 feet. KPRA is kingpin to rear axle distance.

We are always surprised by how many drivers prefer not to run to California. Once you are prepared, it is a great place to operate.

Have a safe trip and enjoy the ride.

Don & Debbe Morrow, authors of the state-by-state guide for truckers, “For the Long Haul,” may be reached