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According to U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics, commercial motor vehicles transport an estimated 11 billion tons of cargo annually, which is approximately 71 percent of the nation’s freight tonnage. The drivers who transport these materials are charged with properly loading and securing cargoes to their trucks.

When a load shifts or falls off the vehicle because it was improperly loaded, the damage can be disastrous. When cargo shifts in transit, the vehicle’s center of gravity changes, potentially causing the driver to lose control of the truck. If the truck overturns, it can cause serious injury to the driver and to anyone who happens to be nearby. For that reason, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has created a series of extensive rules and regulations regarding how cargo should be secured.

Extended liability

According to the FMCSA, truck drivers should check their cargoes after driving 50 miles initially to make sure that nothing has come loose. Following this initial check, drivers subsequently should check their cargoes every 150 miles or every three hours. As part of a cargo check, drivers should reexamine their vehicles’ cargoes and their load securement devices, making any necessary adjustments. This could include adding securement devices to ensure the cargo cannot shift on or within, or fall from, the vehicle. 

The responsibility for cargo safety lies with everyone who loads a truck. Federal law creates a nontransferable obligation for everyone who interacts with a vehicle’s cargo to follow FMCSA safety regulations. While this includes the truck’s driver, it also includes every person and company that interacts with that truck’s load. When a truck’s cargo is improperly loaded and causes an accident, multiple people and entities could be legally responsible for paying damages to those injured. For example, the trucking company the driver works for could be liable if the company failed to train the driver on how to fasten and secure the cargo properly. If other employees at the trucking company helped the driver secure the load, then they and the trucking company also could face liability.

Additionally, shipping companies that hire the truck driver or trucking company could be responsible if their employees prepared the truck for shipment. While the driver is still responsible for periodically checking the cargo and ensuring it is secured, the people who initially loaded the cargo also could face liability if an accident were to occur shortly after the driver begins the trip. 

Cargo securement devices

A company’s drivers may not have a choice in what they haul. Because of this, they need to be especially aware of how their trailers are loaded. Company owners should discuss the types of cargo drivers haul because different cargoes require different types of securement options.

Cargo can be secured legally in many ways, and many securement devices can be used. These include blocking, bracing, header boards, tarps, sealed containers and tie-downs. 

Blocking: Blocking is used in the front, back or sides adjacent to the cargo to keep it from sliding. Blocking should fit snugly against the cargo and be secured to the cargo deck to prevent movement. 

Bracing: Bracing also is used to prevent the movement of cargo. Bracing goes from the upper part of the cargo to the floor or walls of the cargo compartment. 

Header boards: Front-end header boards (also known as headache racks) protect the driver from his/her cargo in the event of an accident by blocking the forward movement of the cargo. The driver always should be sure the structure is in good condition.

Tarps: Tarps are used to protect other motorists from cargo spills. They also protect the cargo from weather. Most states have laws requiring that loads be covered and tied down securely. Refuse carriers and long-haul rigs must comply with these laws. If something flies off the back of a vehicle and injures someone or damages property, the driver will be held liable. Drivers must be familiar with the requirements in the states they drive in.

Investing in high-quality tarps can provide protection. Many styles and materials are available, and they all can be effective, except for those made of canvas. Canvas should never be used to secure cargo because of its tendency to rip and tear.

Tarp life can be extended with regular cleaning and by storing them away from extreme weather. As a best practice, a driver should check the tarps securing his or her load from time to time by looking in his or her side-view mirror.

Sealed containers: Sealed containers or containerized loads generally are used when freight is carried part of the way via rail or ship. Some containers have their own tie-down devices or locks that attach directly to a special frame, while others must be loaded onto flatbed trailers and secured like other large cargo would be. 

Tie-downs: Tie-downs are used on flatbed trailers or trailers without sides. In these instances, the cargo must be secured to keep it from shifting or falling off the vehicle. In closed vehicles, tie-downs can help prevent the cargo from shifting, which could affect the vehicle’s handling.

Proper equipment includes straps, chains and tensioning devices (winches, ratchets or clinching components). These tie-downs must be attached correctly (using hooks, rails, bolts or rings). Before use, the driver should check the tie-downs for wear and tear. In the case of damage caused by UV rays, the color of the tie-down looks bleached and the webbing may feel stiff.

When checking chains, the driver should look for damaged links, cracks and breaks and be sure to inspect the ratchet or hook at the end of the chain (unmarked chains should be assigned to the lowest working load limit). Heavy loads place a great deal of pressure on the tie-downs, so it’s important to check them frequently, replacing them when necessary.

Stay within the limits

All vehicles must stay within the legal weight limit. Many states have maximum limits for gross vehicle weight, gross combination vehicle weight and axle weights. The purpose of these limits is to prevent overloading of bridges and roadways. Overloading can affect steering, braking and speed control. On an upgrade, trucks travel at a slower rate. On downgrades, they may gain too much speed. An overloaded truck can increase stopping distances, and brakes can fail if they are forced to work too hard.

Safe handling is based, in part, on the vehicle’s center of gravity. A high center of gravity (cargo piled high or heavy cargo on top) can cause a truck to roll over. Cargo has a greater chance of shifting to the side or falling off on flatbed vehicles. Top-heavy loads are most dangerous in curves (exit ramps) or if the driver must swerve to avoid a hazard. Loading the heaviest cargo on the bottom and lightest on top is the best way to distribute the cargo.

Remember, cargo responsibility lies with everyone who loads the truck. 

Commodor E. Hall is the transportation safety director for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington. He can be contacted at chall@isri.org.