Wide Load Regulations, Rules, Flags and Permit Costs by State

Over-the-road trucking is here to stay. Based on Bureau of Transportation Statistics, trucking carries more than 10 billion tons of freight annually, and that number is increasing steadily. Of that, six percent, or 600 million tons of all truck loads were oversize/overweight loads.1

The oversize load trucking industry has its own set of complexities. In addition to the trucking companies and their drivers, there are brokers who contract their services, their customers, and the businesses that support the oversize hauling operations, including vendors of safety equipment and signs as well as contract escort vehicle operators. Finally, each state has an agency devoted to permitting and regulating oversize and overweight loads.

Wide load vehicle

What is an Oversize Load?

Simply, an oversize load is any load that exceeds the maximum legal width, height, and/or length as defined by each state or province in the United States and Canada.2

Typically, the maximum legal load width is 8.5 feet, and the maximum height limit is 13.5 to 14.5 feet. Legal length, both in definition and measured length, varies significantly from state to state. Although maximum vehicle width by state may vary as well, the width of 8.5 is almost uniform since it is based on the standard width of a highway travel lane, which is typically 12 feet for Interstates and major highways. This discussion focuses on over-width loads - loads that are more than 8.5 feet wide.

Any load more than 8.5 feet wide is, by definition, an oversize load, and with few exceptions will require a state permit to travel on public highways. In some cases, on local, narrower roads, the maximum legal trailer width may be just 8 feet. Depending upon the state, once the width of a load exceeds 12 or 14 feet, there are additional requirements and/or restrictions, such as the requirement for pilot or escort vehicles (P/EV) and limited permitted travel times and routes. Any load that exceeds 16 feet in width becomes a "superload" and subject to more requirements to ensure that the load can be moved safely. Some superloads may require temporary road closures and attendance of state police or other law enforcement.

For operators and drivers of oversize loads, the challenge is not so much loading and moving the cargo but negotiating the myriad state regulations and permitting processes.

Note: Wide loads may also be overweight loads, but the issue of vehicle weights is not included in this discussion.

When preparing to move any over-width load, it's important to know the exact dimensions of the shipment to determine if a permit is required and support services required.

State Regulations and Overwidth Permits

Maximum legal dimensions of loads vary from state to states, but any vehicle and load that exceeds one or more legal dimension usually requires a permit defining the size, weight, and nature of the load and the origin and destination of the haul. Fees for permits are determined by the nature of the load and vary from state to state. Fees range from as little as $15.00 to more than $70 for the same basic load, depending on the state. There may also be a fee of approximately $15.00 to process the application. Operators who frequently move oversize loads may set up accounts with the states that will reduce or eliminate application fees for future permits. Permits may be issued for one-time hauls, multiple similar hauls (e. g, similar prefabricated assemblies for a construction project) or annual permits for the movement of similar hauls such as manufactured housing or other regularly produced, oversize commodities.

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The permit defines the conditions of the movement of the wide load, the route of travel, the safety equipment required, including whether escort vehicles will be required, any directed or restricted times of moving the load, and the fee for the permit. Based on the request for the permit, it will be issued for a limited period such as a specific date, or during a specified period of days. Most long-term permits must be renewed at least annually.

Each state designates a department to oversee issuance of permits and collect fees. In some states, this is an office within the Department of Transportation, while in other states it may a branch of the Department of Revenue, and there may be one central office or there may be multiple locations that process permit applications.

Always keep in mind, regardless of the permit, operators and drivers must comply with any safety equipment, escort requirements, and driver's time in the seat limits.

Safety Equipment

Safety equipment is a key element in hauling any over-dimensional load. Safety equipment includes warning signs, flags, and lights to ensure that other drivers are aware of, and can see, the edges and ends of the oversize load. Typically, states require the hauling vehicle to have a yellow and black "WIDE LOAD" or "OVERSIZE LOAD" sign or banner across the front of the towing vehicle and at the back of the vehicle or at the end of the load if it extends beyond the rear of the hauling vehicle.

Warning flags, red or fluorescent orange, 18 in square, must be attached to forward and rear corners of the oversize load. Additional flags must be attached to any extensions or protuberances that extend farther from the sides of the vehicle and the corners. Note that the mounting of the flags is NOT included in the total width of the load.

Typical flag placement for an oversize load.

Flags may be needed only on the ends of simple protrusions
if no other part of the load exceeds the legal limits.

If the load is permitted to move at night, amber or red lights should be placed at about the same positions as the flags, including on the ends of any protuberances. Lights may also be required anytime the load is moving under conditions of reduced visibility such as fog or rain. Otherwise the load should pull off the road at the first suitable place and wait for visibility conditions to improve.

Warning lights are required at the extremities of a wide load (similar placement as the flags).

Some states also require a rotating or flashing light atop the cab of the hauling vehicle. All warning devices must be clearly visible to other drivers, usually from a proscribed minimum distance such as 250 or 400 feet.

Finally, all warning banners, flags, and lights are to be removed or turned off when the truck is not hauling the load.

There are differences in requirements between states. If the haul is going to enter or transit several states, the operator must be aware of the requirements in each state. In some cases, states will honor the safety equipment of another state--but this should be confirmed at the time of permit application. Usually, the required dimensions for banners and flags are described as a "minimum" size, therefore, when traversing several states, use the largest size required within that group of states.

Escort Vehicles

Most states do not require escort vehicles for loads that are no more than 10 feet wide, while a few states require escort vehicles for all oversize loads. Depending on the type and size of the load, only one, or two escort vehicles will be required. For example, on highways that are not divided highways, an escort vehicle may be required in front of the load, whereas on a divided highway such as an Interstate, the escort may only be required behind the load. Additionally, in some states, all oversize loads moved during the night may require escort vehicles.

For loads more than 10 feet wide, up to an absolute limit, usually about 14 feet wide, escort vehicles may be required both in front of, and behind the load.

It is not uncommon for a truck and load moving through a state where escort vehicles are not required, to be met by escort vehicles as they transition into a state requiring escort vehicles.

Extra wide loads: In some cases, larger wide loads, as defined by each state, may also require law enforcement escorts, including state police, sheriff's officers, or other qualified security personnel. Police and sheriff personnel's time is usually paid for by the hauling company/operator.

Running times

Permitted travel times vary widely between states, and in cities and communities within a state. Many states restrict movements of oversized loads to daylight hours. These restrictions may only apply to state highways and not Interstates. These restrictions may also vary according to the size of the oversize load: for example, loads greater than 10 feet wide may be restricted to daylight hours, while oversize loads no more 10 ft. wide may move at night on Interstates and four-lane divided highways. In some cases, wide loads may be required to move at night during periods of least traffic. When moving loads through several states, operators must review the requirements the permit(s) for each state to fully understand and comply with each set of regulations. Penalties for not adhering to the conditions of the permit, or for not having the required permit can result in significant fines.

Many sates also limit movement of oversize loads on weekends and/or legal holidays, including individual state holidays. During holiday periods, travel must stop at a designated time, e.g., noon, on the day before the holiday and not resume until the day after the holiday. The objective is to not have oversize loads traveling during periods of anticipated increased holiday traffic.

  1. Based on data contained in FHWA Oversize/Overweight Vehicle Permit Fee Study, October 2012, Report No. 06736-2
  2. For an overview of various state regulations see: Oversize Load Flags, Lights, Signs, Banners, Holiday Restrictions and Running Times Regulations By State