The Drive for Safer Trailers

When you think about the equipment you own, chances are your mind first goes to the machines that are always in use and have brought significant return on investment. But how much time do you spend thinking about the trailers in your fleet? These unsung heroes don’t require a tremendous amount of time and attention. Yet, without them, your machines would remain right where they sit — in the equipment yard.

Here’s another question to ponder: Are your trailers up to snuff? Do they meet all safety requirements? The answers to these questions are important because they could affect your eligibility for insurance, not to mention the rates you pay.

Lights and brakes

Chief among the safety concerns are lighting and brakes. Currently, the laws and regulations regarding lights and brakes are ambiguous at best. The National Association of Trailer Manufacturers (NATM) is working to change that.

“The biggest issue is proper lighting,” says Clint Lancaster, technical director, NATM. “Not only the requirement for lights in specific locations on the trailer, depending on size and weight, but also, that the lights are actually functioning with the proper photo metrics. There is a lot of lighting that’s manufactured off shore that doesn’t meet the minimum brightness requirements.”

Brakes are also a major issue. “There are two different governing bodies where brakes are concerned,” Lancaster notes. “The federal government regulates braking on commercial vehicles. They’re required to have brakes on all axles, or all wheels, for anything with a GVWR over 3,000 lbs.”

Consumer use of trailers, however, is regulated by individual states. “They’re all over the board,” Lancaster says. “There are several states that don’t have any brake laws — you can build a 10,000-lb. trailer and not have any brakes on it if it’s for consumer use. Or you could go to New York and be required to have brakes on a trailer that is 1,000 lbs. GVWR.

“Of the 50 states, 26 of them have adopted the 3,000-lb. GVWR brake requirement,” he continues. “We would like to see that be the standard for everyone.”

Required compliance

Lancaster recommends you familiarize yourself with the laws in your state and ensure your trailers meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. For its part, the NATM is doing its best to achieve some consistency in trailer safety and manufacturing. One of its current efforts is to require its members — approximately 400 trailer manufacturers — to verify compliance with the standards.

“We’ve had a compliance program since 2002. It started as a voluntary program. Members could request an inspection, or an audit, to make sure they’re meeting all the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety requirements that they’re required to by law,” Lancaster indicates.

“[The voluntary program] provided a chance for members to have someone come out to their plant, actually take a look at their trailers, make sure they have all the correct lighting in the right places, brakes, safety chains, proper couplers… there is a three-page checklist,” he explains. “Any discrepancies they had they would need to correct, then show us proof they were corrected and then we would certify them. Every two years, we would go back and do another recertification.

“At last year’s NATM annual meeting, the membership voted to make compliance verification a requirement for membership,” he states. This is important since the trailer manufacturing industry has very low barriers to entry. Often, individuals with a welding background will begin to make trailers, but they don’t understand the complexity of the government regulations.

The compliance program is designed in response to the need to ensure trailer makers meet all safety requirements. Companies that are certified are allowed to apply an NATM compliance decal to their trailers to let consumers know the trailers are built to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

“We’ve been trying to get people to recognize that compliance decal,” says Lancaster, “so fleet managers and rental stores have some assurance that a third-party entity has gone to that plant, looked at their operation, looked at their product and ensured that they at least meet the minimum manufacturing requirements.”

Compliance verification as a requirement for NATM membership went into effect at the beginning of this year. To put this in perspective, about 30% of all trailer manufacturers are members of the NATM, and those companies produce about 80% of the trailers in use today.

Brake standard coming soon

In addition to addressing trailer safety among its members, the NATM is approaching the issue from a broader perspective. Last year, it brought in the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association and National Marine Manufacturers Association to create an industry work group for standardized brake performance.

“We’re trying to develop a standard for brake performance that we can accept as an industry,” says Lancaster.

The group is close to finishing its draft of the standard, which will then go to SAE to be fully developed. “Once we have that standard, then we can go back to members and say, ‘This is the way you should do it.’ It won’t be the law, but it will be the first step,” Lancaster indicates.

If all goes as planned, there could be an official braking standard by the end of 2012, which could then be implemented as early as the beginning of 2013. “Once implemented, it’s still a voluntary standard,” says Lancaster. “But we intend to put this brake standard into our compliance inspections.”

Take responsibility for safety

The NATM is working to ensure the safety of trailers on the road, and the initiatives it’s pursuing promise to further that goal.

In the meantime, it’s up to equipment owners to be aware of the current safety standards in the state(s) in which you operate, and to do what you can to ensure compliance by purchasing trailers that have the NATM compliance decal on them. Doing so not only benefits the general public, it helps to protect your business from potential liability and needless expense should your equipment be found to not meet regulations.