Bottom Line
Tarping a load: Can anything make it easier and safer?

Ever since the days when freight was loaded onto horse-drawn wagons, folks have been looking for ways to make tarping a load a little easier. The requirements to protect certain types of freight are a part of the trucking business, but getting the job done can often be difficult, stressful, and downright unsafe. Truckers who have battled high winds, extreme heat, bone-chilling cold, snow, rain, or sleet to tarp a load relate incidents of frustration, misery, and injuries ranging from cuts and bruises to permanent disability or death. One trucker who fell and broke both arms while trying to tarp a load in a driving rainstorm still managed to keep his sense of humor.

"The worst part of having both arms in casts wasn't the fact that I couldn't work," he told Land Line. "It was not being able to dress or feed myself. My wife runs a day-care center in our home. For eight weeks I was just another one of the kids."

Rolling tarps

Perhaps the most significant advance in making tarping easier was introduced in the 1980s–the rolling tarp system concept. There are now several manufacturers of these systems in the U.S. and Canada. A rolling tarp system consists of tarps stretched over a framework of bows anchored to rollers that slide along a track mounted to the trailer side rails or bow pockets. Such systems may be opened or closed from the ground and will collapse (accordion style) all the way to the front or back of the trailer for ease of loading or unloading. When fully extended, the tarps are (ideally) taut across the bows and the system locks securely in place. Locking means vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Some tarping systems offer rigid bulkheads and trailer-type rear doors, giving your trailer almost van-like security. Most can accommodate side kits when necessary and can be installed on either straight flatbed or step deck trailers. When choosing a system, the height of the bows should be determined by the type of freight you haul most often, with consideration given to maximum versatility. There will be some loads that you cannot haul with such a system in place, such as an even slightly over-width load. Once installed, you must extend the system and lock it into place whenever the truck will be moving, loaded or empty. Otherwise, the wind will damage the loose, flapping tarps.

Rolling tarp systems do not eliminate the need for cargo securement devices–they are designed simply to protect the load from the elements and make the driver's job easier and safer. Such a system represents a significant investment–depending on your requirements, a rolling tarp system can cost more than $10,000. Care should be taken to balance the advantage of time saved (how much time do you spend tarping loads?), decreased likelihood of claims, and your personal safety against the possible limitations (if applicable) of the loads you will be able to haul and the cost of the system.

Beyond the edge

You should be aware that a rolling tarp system can add several inches to the width of your trailer, depending on the manufacturer and how you choose to have it installed. The Code of Federal Regulations in 23 CFR, Ch. 1, §658.17(c) states, "Safety devices, as defined in §658.5(g) or as determined by the states as necessary for the safe and efficient operation of motor vehicles shall not be included in the calculation of width. Safety devices not specifically enumerated in §658.5(g) may not extend beyond three inches on each side of a vehicle. No device included in this subsection shall have, by its design or use, the capability to carry cargo."

Some truckers whose 102-inch wide trailers are equipped with tarping systems have reported to OOIDA that they received tickets for violation of maximum width regulations. The problem seems to lie in the lack of a clear understanding of the regulations by some enforcement personnel.

Tarping systems were not initially named in federal regulations as safety devices. In the 1980s, manufacturers and other interested parties asked the FHWA to clarify CMV width (and length) limitations. FHWA's clarification was published in the Federal Register on March 13, 1987, and is found in Volume 52, No. 49, pages 7834-7835. In paragraph 9b, FHWA clearly exempts "tarp and tarp hardware" and "tiedown assembly on platform trailers" when determining the width of a CMV.

–by Ruth Jones, senior editor