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Bobtail insurance explained

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If you drive a big rig, or if you manage a fleet that includes tractor-trailer equipment, you need to understand bobtail insurance. In this article, we’ll explain what bobtail insurance is, how it works and why bobtail insurance an essential form of auto liability coverage.

What is a bobtail truck?

A semi-truck without a trailer attached is referred to as a bobtail truck, or is said to be bobtailing. 

Ideally, every trucker wants to drop one load and pick up another to keep making money. However, although trucking companies work hard to avoid wasting time and fuel on empty miles, freight logistics are less than perfect, so most drivers have to spend at least some time either hauling an empty trailer (deadheading) or driving without a trailer (bobtailing).

Why is it called bobtailing?

In the days when freight was hauled by horses, a teamster would bob a horse’s tail to prevent it from becoming entangled in the wagon harness. Some even believed that removing the caudal vertebrae made the horse’s back stronger.

The 1850 song “Camptown Races” includes the lyric: I bet my money on the bobtail nag, and “Jingle Bells,” published the same year, refers to a bobtail twice! 

By the 20th century, as trucks replaced draft horses, the term bobtail was re-purposed to mean a truck without a trailer attached.

bobtail truck

Is bobtailing dangerous?

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, bobtail trucks cause one out of every 20 truck accidents, resulting in thousands of injuries and hundreds of deaths.

To understand why a bobtail truck can be more dangerous than a fully loaded truck, consider why we use the term “semi” when referring to these rigs. A semi-trailer is obviously designed to work with something else, because it only has wheels in the back.

When attached to a truck, half of the trailer load is supported by the rear wheels, axle and frame of the truck. The truck and trailer are engineered as a complete tractor-trailer system, capable of braking, steering and maneuvering safely, whether in city traffic or at highway speeds.

Trucks are Designed for Weight

Tractor-trailers are designed for a maximum combined weight of 80,000 pounds, including truck, trailer and cargo. 

A flatbed can carry up to 48,000 pounds. Dry vans carry up to 45,000, while refrigerated trucks haul slightly less.

When a load has been delivered, the empty trailer still weighs 10,000 pounds, so carrying something between five tons and 24 tons is the normal mode of operation for the chassis, suspension, wheels and powertrain of a semi-truck.

How Weight Adds Stability

With the trailer pushing down on the rear of the truck at the hitch point, the cargo weight adds both stability and traction. Removing this weight causes several conditions that can be dangerous:

  • Without enough weight on the rear axle, the rear wheels may hop or skid when the driver applies the brakes.
  • Without traction to grip the pavement, the rear wheels may spin when the truck accelerates, especially in rain or snow.
  • Without trailer brakes, a bobtail truck needs more distance to stop and can easily fishtail, especially on a curve.
  • Without a counterbalance on the rear wheels, too much weight is carried on the front wheels, causing difficult steering.
  • Without the stability of a load, emergency maneuvers, such as hard braking or a sudden swerve, can easily cause the driver to lose control.

How To Avoid the Dangers of Bobtailing

Operators and owners should try to avoid bobtail runs, except when absolutely necessary. Moreover, a semi-truck should never be used as a substitute for a passenger vehicle.

When a bobtail run is required, professional truck drivers have been trained to be cautious: brake gently, accelerate slowly and maneuver with extra care.

Even with extra care, every owner or operator who must occasionally drive without a trailer should carry bobtail insurance coverage. 

Does general liability cover bobtailing?

Truck operators are required to have a minimum level of general liability insurance against property damage or bodily injury. 

Primary liability coverage amounts range from $300,000 for regular cargo, up to $5 million for hauling hazardous material.

Bobtail liability insurance is not included in general liability because, as we have shown, it is not a normal mode of operation for the truck. 

Either the operator or the trucking company has made a decision to drive the truck in a condition that is known to be more dangerous, and this fact creates unique liability.

A Special Category of Liability

Bobtailing exposes a driver or owner operator to a special category of liability because the truck is only being used for the mobility and not for hauling freight. This is sometimes referred to as non-trucking liability. 

With no load, the driver is not transporting for a motor carrier and is not operating under its authority. The driver is not covered by the motor carrier’s liability policy, hence the need for bobtail liability insurance.

When a trucker is not under dispatch, bobtail insurance coverage is an essential form of trucking insurance, protecting the operator from being held liable for medical bills, property damage, legal fees and other financial loss when an accident occurs. 

What does bobtail insurance cover?

Bobtail insurance is liability coverage, so it does not cover physical damage to an insured’s truck. Typically, the motor carrier provides collision insurance. 

When the driver of a bobtail truck has been deemed to be at fault in an accident, bobtail insurance covers damage to other vehicles, damage to property and injuries suffered by other people involved in the accident.

Note that the driver of a bobtail truck must be under dispatch (or on the way to or from a work run) in order to be covered by bobtail insurance.

For example, a driver who has dropped off a trailer and is on the way to pick up another trailer would be covered by bobtail insurance coverage for an accident that caused property damage or injury.

Likewise, a bobtailing driver who had an accident on the way to pick up a first load, or on the way home from dropping a last load, would be covered by bobtail insurance.

When is bobtail insurance not in effect?

Generally, a bobtailing driver would not be covered for an accident that occurs when the driver is not going to or from a work run.

For example, a driver has dropped off a last load and is on the way home. Instead of going straight home, the driver detours to stop at a store and pick up groceries. 

Now the driver is no longer on the way home from work and is using the truck for a personal purpose. If there is an accident on the way home from the store, the damages are not covered.

Finally, it is important to remember that bobtail insurance covers bobtailing only. Any time the driver is hauling a load, bobtailing insurance does not apply. 

If a driver has dropped off the contents of a load and is hauling an empty trailer, that is deadheading, not bobtailing, so any damages or injuries from an accident would not be covered.

What is non-trucking liability insurance?

Non-trucking liability insurance is an industry term that essentially means the same thing as bobtail insurance. Non-trucking liability insurance covers the operator when not under dispatch to a motor carrier. 

Some non-trucking liability policies provide coverage for non-dispatch activity, such as having the truck repaired or cleaned, even when the operator is not working or going to/from work. 

Operators should carefully review their coverage to know exactly when their non-trucking liability insurance or bobtail insurance is (or is not) in effect.

How much does bobtail insurance cost?

Bobtail insurance cost will range from $30 to $40 per month and may be discounted if you pay the premium annually or bundle bobtail insurance or non-trucking liability with other coverage.

For these rates, bobtail coverage typically provides $1 million of coverage. Truckers with unique risk levels can pay more and arrange for higher limits.

An Investment in Priceless Protection

Bobtail truck insurance is a prudent form of protection for drivers and owners who must occasionally operate without a trailer. 

Bobtail insurance is affordable compared to most other business insurance, and in the event of an accident with injuries or property damage, bobtail insurance can give a driver or owner priceless protection against a devastating financial loss.

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