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Kassel v. Consolidated Freightways Corp.

15 January, 2016 - 09:29

Kassel v. Consolidated Freightways Corp.

450 U.S. 662 (U.S. Supreme Court 1981)

JUSTICE POWELL announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which JUSTICE WHITE, JUSTICE BLACKMUN, and JUSTICE STEVENS joined.

The question is whether an Iowa statute that prohibits the use of certain large trucks within the State unconstitutionally burdens interstate commerce.


Appellee Consolidated Freightways Corporation of Delaware (Consolidated) is one of the largest common carriers in the country: it offers service in 48 States under a certificate of public convenience and necessity issued by the Interstate Commerce Commission. Among other routes, Consolidated carries commodities through Iowa on Interstate 80, the principal east-west route linking New York, Chicago, and the west coast, and on Interstate 35, a major north-south route.

Consolidated mainly uses two kinds of trucks. One consists of a three-axle tractor pulling a 40-foot two-axle trailer. This unit, commonly called a single, or “semi,” is 55 feet in length overall. Such trucks have long been used on the Nation’s highways. Consolidated also uses a two-axle tractor pulling a single-axle trailer which, in turn, pulls a single-axle dolly and a second single-axle trailer. This combination, known as a double, or twin, is 65 feet long overall. Many trucking companies, including Consolidated, increasingly prefer to use doubles to ship certain kinds of commodities. Doubles have larger capacities, and the trailers can be detached and routed separately if necessary. Consolidated would like to use 65-foot doubles on many of its trips through Iowa.

The State of Iowa, however, by statute, restricts the length of vehicles that may use its highways. Unlike all other States in the West and Midwest, Iowa generally prohibits the use of 65-foot doubles within its borders.

Because of Iowa’s statutory scheme, Consolidated cannot use its 65-foot doubles to move commodities through the State. Instead, the company must do one of four things: (i) use 55-foot singles; (ii) use 60-foot doubles; (iii) detach the trailers of a 65-foot double and shuttle each through the State separately; or (iv) divert 65-foot doubles around Iowa. Dissatisfied with these options, Consolidated filed this suit in the District Court averring that Iowa’s statutory scheme unconstitutionally burdens interstate commerce. Iowa defended the law as a reasonable safety measure enacted pursuant to its police power. The State asserted that 65-foot doubles are more dangerous than 55-foot singles and, in any event, that the law promotes safety and reduces road wear within the State by diverting much truck traffic to other states.

In a 14-day trial, both sides adduced evidence on safety and on the burden on interstate commerce imposed by Iowa’s law. On the question of safety, the District Court found that the “evidence clearly establishes that the twin is as safe as the semi.” 475 F.Supp. 544, 549 (SD Iowa 1979). For that reason, “there is no valid safety reason for barring twins from Iowa’s highways because of their configuration.…The evidence convincingly, if not overwhelmingly, establishes that the 65-foot twin is as safe as, if not safer than, the 60-foot twin and the 55-foot semi.…”

“Twins and semis have different characteristics. Twins are more maneuverable, are less sensitive to wind, and create less splash and spray. However, they are more likely than semis to jackknife or upset. They can be backed only for a short distance. The negative characteristics are not such that they render the twin less safe than semis overall. Semis are more stable, but are more likely to ‘rear-end’ another vehicle.”

In light of these findings, the District Court applied the standard we enunciated in Raymond Motor Transportation, Inc. v. Rice, 434 U.S. 429 (1978), and concluded that the state law impermissibly burdened interstate commerce: “[T]he balance here must be struck in favor of the federal interests. The total effect of the law as a safety measure in reducing accidents and casualties is so slight and problematical that it does not outweigh the national interest in keeping interstate commerce free from interferences that seriously impede it.”

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed. 612 F.2d 1064 (1979). It accepted the District Court’s finding that 65-foot doubles were as safe as 55-foot singles. Id. at 1069. Thus, the only apparent safety benefit to Iowa was that resulting from forcing large trucks to detour around the State, thereby reducing overall truck traffic on Iowa’s highways. The Court of Appeals noted that this was not a constitutionally permissible interest. It also commented that the several statutory exemptions identified above, such as those applicable to border cities and the shipment of livestock, suggested that the law, in effect, benefited Iowa residents at the expense of interstate traffic. Id. at 1070-1071. The combination of these exemptions weakened the presumption of validity normally accorded a state safety regulation. For these reasons, the Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court that the Iowa statute unconstitutionally burdened interstate commerce.

Iowa appealed, and we noted probable jurisdiction. 446 U.S. 950 (1980). We now affirm.


It is unnecessary to review in detail the evolution of the principles of Commerce Clause adjudication. The Clause is both a “prolific ‘ of national power and an equally prolific source of conflict with legislation of the state[s].” H. P. Hood & Sons, Inc. v. Du Mond, 336 U.S. 525, 336 U.S. 534 (1949). The Clause permits Congress to legislate when it perceives that the national welfare is not furthered by the independent actions of the States. It is now well established, also, that the Clause itself is “a limitation upon state power even without congressional implementation.” Hunt v. Washington Apple Advertising Comm’n, 432 U.S. 333 at 350 (1977). The Clause requires that some aspects of trade generally must remain free from interference by the States. When a State ventures excessively into the regulation of these aspects of commerce, it “trespasses upon national interests,” Great A&P Tea Co. v. Cottrell, 424 U.S. 366, 424 U.S. 373 (1976), and the courts will hold the state regulation invalid under the Clause alone.

The Commerce Clause does not, of course, invalidate all state restrictions on commerce. It has long been recognized that, “in the absence of conflicting legislation by Congress, there is a residuum of power in the state to make laws governing matters of local concern which nevertheless in some measure affect interstate commerce or even, to some extent, regulate it.” Southern Pacific Co. v. Arizona, 325 U.S. 761 (1945).

The extent of permissible state regulation is not always easy to measure. It may be said with confidence, however, that a State’s power to regulate commerce is never greater than in matters traditionally of local concern. Washington Apple Advertising Comm’n, supra at 432 U.S. 350. For example, regulations that touch upon safety—especially highway safety—are those that “the Court has been most reluctant to invalidate.” Raymond, supra at 434 U.S. 443 (and other cases cited). Indeed, “if safety justifications are not illusory, the Court will not second-guess legislative judgment about their importance in comparison with related burdens on interstate commerce.” Raymond, supra at 434 U.S. at 449. Those who would challenge such bona fide safety regulations must overcome a “strong presumption of validity.” Bibb v. Navajo Freight Lines, Inc., 359 U.S. 520 at (1959).

But the incantation of a purpose to promote the public health or safety does not insulate a state law from Commerce Clause attack. Regulations designed for that salutary purpose nevertheless may further the purpose so marginally, and interfere with commerce so substantially, as to be invalid under the Commerce Clause. In the Court’s recent unanimous decision in Raymond we declined to “accept the State’s contention that the inquiry under the Commerce Clause is ended without a weighing of the asserted safety purpose against the degree of interference with interstate commerce.” This “weighing” by a court requires—and indeed the constitutionality of the state regulation depends on—“a sensitive consideration of the weight and nature of the state regulatory concern in light of the extent of the burden imposed on the course of interstate commerce.” Id. at 434 U.S. at 441; accord, Pike v. Bruce Church, Inc., 397 U.S. 137 at 142 (1970);Bibb, supra, at 359 U.S. at 525-530.


Applying these general principles, we conclude that the Iowa truck length limitations unconstitutionally burden interstate commerce.

In Raymond Motor Transportation, Inc. v. Rice, the Court held that a Wisconsin statute that precluded the use of 65-foot doubles violated the Commerce Clause. This case is Raymond revisited. Here, as in Raymond, the State failed to present any persuasive evidence that 65-foot doubles are less safe than 55-foot singles. Moreover, Iowa’s law is now out of step with the laws of all other Midwestern and Western States. Iowa thus substantially burdens the interstate flow of goods by truck. In the absence of congressional action to set uniform standards, some burdens associated with state safety regulations must be tolerated. But where, as here, the State’s safety interest has been found to be illusory, and its regulations impair significantly the federal interest in efficient and safe interstate transportation, the state law cannot be harmonized with the Commerce Clause.


Iowa made a more serious effort to support the safety rationale of its law than did Wisconsin in Raymond, but its effort was no more persuasive. As noted above, the District Court found that the “evidence clearly establishes that the twin is as safe as the semi.” The record supports this finding. The trial focused on a comparison of the performance of the two kinds of trucks in various safety categories. The evidence showed, and the District Court found, that the 65-foot double was at least the equal of the 55-foot single in the ability to brake, turn, and maneuver. The double, because of its axle placement, produces less splash and spray in wet weather. And, because of its articulation in the middle, the double is less susceptible to dangerous “off-tracking,” and to wind.

None of these findings is seriously disputed by Iowa. Indeed, the State points to only three ways in which the 55-foot single is even arguably superior: singles take less time to be passed and to clear intersections; they may back up for longer distances; and they are somewhat less likely to jackknife.

The first two of these characteristics are of limited relevance on modern interstate highways. As the District Court found, the negligible difference in the time required to pass, and to cross intersections, is insignificant on 4-lane divided highways, because passing does not require crossing into oncoming traffic lanes, Raymond, 434 U.S. at 444, and interstates have few, if any, intersections. The concern over backing capability also is insignificant, because it seldom is necessary to back up on an interstate. In any event, no evidence suggested any difference in backing capability between the 60-foot doubles that Iowa permits and the 65-foot doubles that it bans. Similarly, although doubles tend to jackknife somewhat more than singles, 65-foot doubles actually are less likely to jackknife than 60-foot doubles.

Statistical studies supported the view that 65-foot doubles are at least as safe overall as 55-foot singles and 60-foot doubles. One such study, which the District Court credited, reviewed Consolidated’s comparative accident experience in 1978 with its own singles and doubles. Each kind of truck was driven 56 million miles on identical routes. The singles were involved in 100 accidents resulting in 27 injuries and one fatality. The 65-foot doubles were involved in 106 accidents resulting in 17 injuries and one fatality. Iowa’s expert statistician admitted that this study provided “moderately strong evidence” that singles have a higher injury rate than doubles. Another study, prepared by the Iowa Department of Transportation at the request of the state legislature, concluded that “[s]ixty-five foot twin trailer combinations have not been shown by experiences in other states to be less safe than 60-foot twin trailer combinations or conventional tractor-semitrailers.”

In sum, although Iowa introduced more evidence on the question of safety than did Wisconsin in Raymond, the record as a whole was not more favorable to the State.


Consolidated, meanwhile, demonstrated that Iowa’s law substantially burdens interstate commerce. Trucking companies that wish to continue to use 65-foot doubles must route them around Iowa or detach the trailers of the doubles and ship them through separately. Alternatively, trucking companies must use the smaller 55-foot singles or 65-foot doubles permitted under Iowa law. Each of these options engenders inefficiency and added expense. The record shows that Iowa’s law added about $12.6 million each year to the costs of trucking companies.

Consolidated alone incurred about $2 million per year in increased costs.

In addition to increasing the costs of the trucking companies (and, indirectly, of the service to consumers), Iowa’s law may aggravate, rather than, ameliorate, the problem of highway accidents. Fifty-five-foot singles carry less freight than 65-foot doubles. Either more small trucks must be used to carry the same quantity of goods through Iowa or the same number of larger trucks must drive longer distances to bypass Iowa. In either case, as the District Court noted, the restriction requires more highway miles to be driven to transport the same quantity of goods. Other things being equal, accidents are proportional to distance traveled. Thus, if 65-foot doubles are as safe as 55-foot singles, Iowa’s law tends to increase the number of accidents and to shift the incidence of them from Iowa to other States.

[IV. Omitted]


In sum, the statutory exemptions, their history, and the arguments Iowa has advanced in support of its law in this litigation all suggest that the deference traditionally accorded a State’s safety judgment is not warranted. See Raymond, supra at 434 U.S. at 444-447. The controlling factors thus are the findings of the District Court, accepted by the Court of Appeals, with respect to the relative safety of the types of trucks at issue, and the substantiality of the burden on interstate commerce.

Because Iowa has imposed this burden without any significant countervailing safety interest, its statute violates the Commerce Clause. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.

It is so ordered.


  1. Under the Constitution, what gives Iowa the right to make rules regarding the size or configuration of trucks upon highways within the state?
  2. Did Iowa try to exempt trucking lines based in Iowa, or was the statutory rule nondiscriminatory as to the origin of trucks that traveled on Iowa highways?
  3. Are there any federal size or weight standards noted in the case? Is there any kind of truck size or weight that could be limited by Iowa law, or must Iowa simply accept federal standards or, if none, impose no standards at all?