AG’s office clarifies 53-foot rule for trailers in North Carolina

| 3/7/2008

The assistant attorney general in North Carolina has issued an advisory letter to enforcement officials to say that 53-foot trailers are allowed on certain highways in the state.

The advisory from Assistant Attorney General Ebony Pittman is the latest step in a battle about commerce, safety and bringing North Carolina in line with 30 other states that allow 53-foot trailers on important truck routes other than the National Truck Network.

Trucking company owner Ingrid Bell, an OOIDA member from Zionville, NC, told Land Line that local and state enforcement officers began enforcing a 48-foot rule on Jan. 1 of this year, citing truckers on state highways where 53-footers were previously left alone. Fines are typically $200.

Bell lives and works in a mountainous region but has been hauling 53-foot trailers for years. When the enforcement started Jan. 1, she was forced to park her 53-foot trailer 62 miles from the house, a practice that clearly hurt her business.

Bell recently stated her case to one of the many county commissions taking up the issue of trailer length. The issue also captured the attention of lawmakers, including Sen. Steve Goss, D-45th District.

Goss, who represents the counties of Alexander, Ashe, Watauga and Wilkes in northwestern North Carolina, stated in a press release that the issue is about commerce and modernizing North Carolina with other states.

“My understanding is that some 75 percent of all trucking now uses the 53-foot standard,” Goss stated in the press release. “As for safety concerns, I have been assured that safety goals can be met by ensuring that equipment is up to standard and speeding laws are enforced properly.”

An official with the North Carolina Highway Patrol said the assistant attorney general’s advisory letter could lead to increased safety risks in some areas.

“We will work with DOT to investigate those routes,” Capt. William M. Nichols told Land Line.

“The only thing we don’t want to happen is for these vehicles to be on these roads where it’s not safe.”

Assistant Attorney General Pittman’s advisory letter to enforcement officials is, in his words, a literal reading of the law and “has not been approved in accordance with the procedures for an advisory opinion of the Department of Justice.”

“Based on a literal reading of (the rule), 53-foot semitrailers are, therefore, allowed on interstates and on the federal-aid primary system as it existed on June 1, 1991,” Pittman wrote in the letter to NCDOT and the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety.

Attorney General Roy Cooper has not expressed where he stands on the issue, but Bell and Sen. Goss have said that they are hoping for more discussions and a possible public hearing on the topic in May.

Nichols said the advisory from the assistant attorney general means 53-foot trailers are legal on state highways, including Routes 221, 321 and 421.

On routes not specified or designated, the Highway Patrol will enforce a 48-foot rule. Nichols said if a 53-foot trailer is seen off its approved route, it will be treated as they’ve always been.

“The trooper will cite them,” he said.

North Carolina laws allow for trucks to travel up to three miles from the national network and designated highways for the expressed purpose of delivery or loading.

“It doesn’t exempt them from anything else, being overweight, or moving violations,” Nichols said.

For Bell and others, including the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, the small victory from the state’s assistant attorney general is welcome.

“If the driver is paying attention, there’s nowhere up there they cannot get around on the federal and state system,” Bell said, speaking of the mountainous northwestern counties.

Goss posted on his personal Web site that he wants to see the state House and Senate take action on the issue.

“I hope that the attorney general’s interpretation of the law will allow the use of the 53-foot trailer in the region,” Goss states on his Web site. “Should the issue need to be addressed by changing the existing statutes, I will be assessing alternatives in the next session of the Legislature.

The next state legislative session begins in May.

– By David Tanner, staff writer