Transport: Relaxing the rules for cleaner heavy road vehicles


On 13 April 2015, the European Commission adopted a formal opinion confirming its acceptance of a proposed Directive to reset maximum legal dimensions and weights for trucks in national and international road transport within the EU. The existing rules have been in existence since 1996 (Directive 96/53/EC) but these do not cater adequately for current concerns relating to, in particular, emissions and energy efficiency. The changes, which were first set out in a proposed directive published in April 2013, are designed to facilitate the take up of cleaner and more efficient engines and vehicle design, without compromising (or increasing) the existing allowable load capacity of road vehicles such as trucks and buses. In essence the dimensions of vehicles are to be allowed to increase to incorporate sustainable vehicle developments but not so as to increase the commercial load.

Key drivers

These are reduction in emissions (greenhouse gases and particulates), lessening of the impact on public health and an increase in energy efficiency. The White Paperadapt the legislation on weight and dimension to new circumstances, technologies and needs (e.g. weight of batteries, better aerodynamic performance), and to make sure it facilitates intermodal transport and the reduction of overall energy consumption and emissions” ‘Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area – Towards a competitive and resource efficient transport system’ published in 2011 emphasised the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, by 60% in comparison with 1990 levels by 2050, as well as by 20% by 2020. In the White Paper the European Commission pledged to “.

Current position

Presently, it is argued that improvement of vehicles’ aerodynamic performance and installation of hybrid or electric propulsion systems are hampered by the limits of maximum dimensions and weights set by Directive 96/53/EC. Hybrid and electric (with batteries) engines can be materially heavier than conventional engines. The legislators accept that this increase in weight should not be at the expense of the commercial load and hence the existing rules need to be amended. Likewise improved design of aerodynamic performance can require increases in the cab and tailgate lengths and again the legislators accept that this increase in length should not be at the expense of the commercial load.

Furthermore, the existing law does not take into account recent developments in containerisation used within intermodal transport. Some standardised containers used in maritime, rail and waterways are slightly too long (15 cms) for the final journey by road and as a result require special permits for this last part of the journey which is seen as an unnecessary cost and administrative burden. The aim is to allow these containers to be transported by road provided the road journey is part of an intermodal journey.

Proposed changes

It is proposed that the 1996 Directive will be amended by a new directive. In the Opinion published on 13 April 2015 the Commission confirms that it accepts all amendments adopted in second reading by the European Parliament (EP) on 10 March 2015. As a result, the Commission has amended its proposal as set out in the consolidated text of the proposed Directive. Whilst of course the proposals will need to pass through the legislative process the current expectations include:

1. Aerodynamic streamlining. Derogations in relation to vehicle length is to be allowed for improved aerodynamics of cabs and the use of aerodynamic flaps attached to the rear of trailers, semi-trailers or trucks, provided these are approved by a Member State.

2. Weight. A derogation of up to 1 tonne is to be permitted for hybrid or electric propulsion up. This derogation will not be available to increase the load capacity of the vehicle.

3. Tougher enforcement. Current enforcement is too weak and this weakness is seen as anti-competitive. The use of on-board weight sensors and the deployment of weigh-in-motion stations on the roads are to be encouraged and Member States are to be obliged to carry out more checks. Penalties are to become more uniform across the EU.

4. Wider liability. There are proposals to make the shipper liable as well as the haulier in the case of overweight vehicles. This would include instances where information provided by the shipper is missing or misleading.

5. Facilitation of intermodal transport containers. A derogation is to allow 15 additional centimeters of length to transport 45-foot containers on the road part of an intermodal journey.

6. Allowing 1 additional tonne for buses. Interestingly it appears that average passenger and passenger luggage weight has increased. The legislators accept that it would be contrary to the modern sustainability concept of encouraging more travel via public transport if the number of passengers (and luggage) per bus became restricted because the weight of the average passenger (and luggage) has increased.

7. Improving road safety. The derogations include streamlining of the cab, facilitating a reduction of drivers’ blind spots, adding energy-absorbing structures in case of shocks, as well as increasing the driver’s safety and comfort.

Next steps

The proposed Directive needs to be adopted under the ordinary legislative procedure which means that both the European Parliament and the European Council, being co-legislators, will need to adopt the same final text. It is expected that the proposed Directive will be passed in a few weeks.


This is a relatively small but targeted example of how the EU is taking steps to fulfill the ambitions set out in the 2011 Transport White Paper. This will be only one of many steps. Much larger steps should be anticipated in relation to technological developments in the next few years.

Click here to view the Communication

Click here to view the consolidated text of the proposed Directive