A group of five high school students from Ottawa County researched heavy truck weights in Michigan as part of a summer project. The team included (clockwise from top, center): Jarod Collier, Allison Morse, Josue Nunez, Morgan Johnston and Reagan McCaw.
Bigger isn't just better for transporting heavy loads of agricultural products on Michigan's roads. It turns out bigger — as in 11-axle freight-hauling trucks — is best for everyone, according to study findings announced recently at Zeeland Farm Services (ZFS).
The Zeeland-based soybean processor sponsored a team of five high-school students from Ottawa Area Intermediate School District to investigate the relationship between heavy trucks and the roads they travel. The results of their research appear to dispel the popular myth that heavier trucks harm roads more than lighter trucks.
The data summarized on the students' website, www.keepbigtrucks.com, suggests that heavy haulers carrying as much as 164,000 pounds are safer, cleaner and more efficient than smaller trucks.
"In the last few years, there have been some bills introduced to lower the truck weights allowed on Michigan roads, mainly because the finger is being pointed at these heavy trucks ruining the roads," said Brian Meeuwsen, ZFS grain merchandiser. "That's not necessarily the case. It's just lack of information."
The students used common sense and simple mathematics to reach the following conclusions:
- Federal transportation guidelines impose an 80,000-pound limit on a typical five-axle truck, producing a weight distribution of 16,000 pounds per axle. Meanwhile, 11-axle heavy haulers transporting 164,000 pounds average 14,909 per axle.
- More than two smaller trucks are necessary to carry the same load as a heavy hauler, resulting in more trucks on roads, increased fuel costs, increased diesel emissions, more stress on state roadways and a greater risk of car-truck accidents.
- Michigan has the lowest gross weight per axle regulation in the Midwest. While many states adhere to federal limits, they also sell special-use permits, allowing trucks to exceed those limits.
- Although only 5 percent of Michigan trucks are 11-axle heavy haulers, the bigger rigs used primarily by the agricultural and automotive industries are more efficient. Lower weight limits would force companies to double their truck fleets and pass those costs onto consumers.
"The main goal is just to preserve Michigan roads," said Jarod Collier, a Grand Haven High School senior among the team that dedicated two weeks of summer vacation to research heavy truck weights.
"No, it's not obvious at first," he said of the bigger vs. smaller debate. "In fact, the complete opposite is what people think. They think heavier trucks are worse for roads and cause more damage. People understand simple pictures, simple words and simple math. It's the same idea as how someone can lay on a bed of needles: You can't lay on an individual needle, but, make a bed of them, it doesn't hurt to lay on them.
"If we can show that, it makes a huge difference."
The student team, part of Ottawa Area Intermediate School District's futurePREP'd program, conducted field research and delivered a presentation as part of the "I Challenge U" problem-solving competition at Haworth, Inc. in Holland.
Its final dress rehearsal happened in front of state officials and media members.
"They did an amazing job in a short amount of time," said Grand Haven High School teacher Mark Londot.
Brink Farms president Brian Brink agreed, saying heavy haulers are important to help contain transportation costs. His own fleet includes several 11-axle trucks to move all sorts of agricultural products.
"Because Michigan is a peninsula, we have to find efficient ways to move our products," he said.
Instead of state legislators proposing further weight restrictions, Brink cautioned them to investigate why other states are looking at increasing them.
"All of our adjoining states are doing what they can to raise weights," Brink said. "So, when you hear, 'We should be more like other states — look at what they're doing,' [consider that] other states want to be more like us, because it makes sense.
"Another argument we hear is, 'We really don't need the heavier trucks in Michigan because only 5 percent of the trucks on the road are heavier trucks.' But that 5 percent is supporting two of the biggest industries in Michigan — automotive and agriculture. It's reality vs. perception."