Should you use rub rails for cargo securement?

As the name implies, a trailer’s rub rails are designed to “rub” against other objects (walls, highway barricades, etc.), absorb the impact, and protect the trailer from damage. Perhaps more importantly, they’re also designed to protect the chains, straps, and ropes commonly used to secure cargo on the trailer. By routing such tiedowns between the rub rail and the deck of the trailer, the driver can protect the tiedowns from impacts to the side of the trailer.

Recognizing the important role that rub rails can play in keeping cargo secure, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) adopted a rule in 2002 requiring drivers to route tiedowns inboard of the rub rails “whenever practicable.” The rule was also adopted in Canada as part of the North American Cargo Securement Standard.

Enforcement problems with the new rule became apparent soon after the agency started enforcing it. Many carriers were faced with a difficult choice: route tiedowns inboard of the rails and attach them directly to the underside of the trailer, potentially risking improper securement, or attach them using standard industry practices and risk being issued a fine or being placed out of service by enforcement personnel who have a different interpretation of “practicable.”

Noting that tiedown failure caused by trailers rubbing against fixed objects is “extremely rare,” the FMCSA decided in 2005 that removing the rub-rail rule would not detract from highway safety and would make enforcement more consistent. Despite objections from Canadian officials, the FMCSA issued a final rule in June 2006, rescinding the prohibition on routing tiedowns outside the rub rails.

Thus, drivers and carriers are no longer prohibited from routing their tiedowns on the outside of the rub rails. But should your company allow it?

The decision is yours to make, but there are good reasons NOT to route tiedowns on the outside of the rub rails or attach them to the rub rails:

  • If your chains or straps are located outside the rub rails and you rub the trailer against a wall, barricade, or other object, your tiedowns — and not the rub rails — could take the brunt of the impact. And it goes without saying that damaged tiedowns are dangerous, potentially leading to an out-of-service vehicle, damaged cargo, and/or a serious accident.
  • Rub rails are normally designed to protect tiedowns, not support them. In fact, most rub rails are not rated by the manufacturer for cargo securement purposes. Given the abuse many rub rails are subject to, they may not be strong enough to serve as anchor points, especially when constructed of aluminum which can bend and crack easily. Stake pockets are a better choice for securing tiedowns.

Of course, there are times when you have no other choice but to route tiedowns outside the rub rails or attach them directly to the rub rails. Drivers must use their best judgment when determining how best to route and attach tiedowns. But they should always keep the risks in mind: tiedowns routed outside the rails could become damaged, and rub rails to which tiedowns are attached could fail.

Finally, when considering a vehicle purchase, consider trailers that allow for cargo securement without use of the rub rails. Stake pockets, low-profile sliding winches, tracks designed to accept tiedown plates, and other features allow rub rails to be reserved for their intended purpose — protecting the trailer and tiedowns.