HEADS UP: Hitting utility lines when hauling heavy equipment can become an expensive ordeal

Updated May 25, 2015

Construction excavator near power lines

According to the National Electrical Safety Code, telephone lines must be at least 14 feet above the ground and electrical lines must be at least 15-½ feet above the ground. Sometimes, though, the lines will hang lower than the allowable minimum heights.

Low-hanging lines usually aren’t a problem, except when a large vehicle needs to pass through. Heavy haulers may hit these overhead lines, causing damage to their equipment and destruction to the poles or structures holding the overhead lines. Even though the lines were too low, this doesn’t mean that the drivers or their carrier are automatically off the hook.

States may have laws stating that drivers or carriers are responsible for damages when vehicles hit overhead objects. For example, North Carolina General Statutes state, “The operator or owner of any vehicle having an overall height, whether unladen or with load, in excess of 12 feet 6 inches, shall be liable for damage to any structure caused by such vehicle having a height in excess of 12 feet 6 inches.”

Would the National Electrical Safety Code or a state’s regulations prevail if a driver hits overhead lines? And who pays for the damages and repairs? The answer is not so clear.

The utility company that placed the lines too low may feel it is always the driver’s responsibility to ensure the vehicle does not hit overhead lines and may believe the driver and/or carrier must pay for the damage. The carrier may feel it is the utility’s fault because the accident would not have happened in the first place had the lines been placed at the proper height.

Determining the party responsible for the damages might be a determination that can only be settled in court. Questioning liability in an accident can be an unpleasant and expensive burden for heavy hauling carriers.

To help avoid the situation altogether, there are a few actions carriers can take to help prevent trucks from hitting overhead telephone and/or electrical lines:

Ensure vehicles and loads are always within the height limits

The maximum height in most states is 13 feet 6 inches. Staying at 13 feet 6 inches or under can help prove that you weren’t solely responsible if a driver hits an overhead line. If the vehicle and/or load are overheight, and a permit is required, ensure that permit conditions are met. Permit conditions may require carriers to obtain front/rear escorts and/or escorts equipped with height poles.

Mark vehicles with the vehicle height

Some carriers will place the height of the vehicle either on the truck or tractor, or on the front of the trailer. This way, drivers are always aware of the height of the vehicle.

Train drivers on overhead obstruction awareness

Drivers are trained to recognize and respond to many different driving hazards. Training often focuses on collision avoidance for objects to the front, sides, and rear of the vehicle. Overhead obstructions covered in training may only cover low clearance overpasses. While it is important to ensure drivers aren’t hitting low clearance overpasses, it’s also important to cover other overhead obstructions such as telephone and power lines.

It always pays to keep a “heads up.” Heavy haulers whose load is also overheight, even by a small measure, and keep their eyes and head up, can pay twice—first in avoiding incidents and again if any unexpected incidents occur.