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HomeNL-2020-05 Warning Flag

Canoe Transport Law
April 2020
by John Rich

When transporting your canoe or kayak on top of your vehicle to your paddling destination, it can overhang out the front and back of your vehicle quite a distance, depending upon the size of your vehicle and the length of your boat.  And this overhang can create a safety hazard for both yourself and other traffic around you.


In your face!
One problem is that other drivers like to pull up close right behind you at red lights. They may not be paying attention to the boat overhang, and pull right up on your rear bumper. Combine that overhanging boat with a snub-nose van, or a vehicle with a short hood, and your kayak could spear the windshield of the vehicle behind you. To view a video of an inattentive Jeep driver being speared by a kayak, click here. It doesn't take much imagination to realize that if this windshield strike had been to the left by just a small amount, a serious personal injury could have occurred.

Turning arc  
Another safety issue is the turning arc. The ends of the boat protruding out the front and back will follow a wider arc when turning than the normal front and back of your vehicle. This wider arc can risk hitting obstacles such as other vehicles, signs, or even pedestrians. The overhanging boat can swing out into adjacent lanes as you turn corners.  You must accommodate this geometry in your driving habits by allowing extra distance.

  3-4-4 Rule
To address these hazards, the U.S. Department of Transportation has a Federal Size Regulation law, which states that cargo can overhang a vehicle in the front by 3 feet, on the sides by 4 inches and in the rear by 4 feet. If cargo overhangs by more than these distances, it must be properly marked.  I'll cover more on proper marking in a minute.  But first, let's finish the law.

Many states have their own different rules for overhanging cargo. Some have stricter limits, and others have none at all. The limits range from just a few feet, to up to 15 feet in Washington. There are lots of exceptions too, such as for logging trucks and house trailers. Those exceptions may require special permits, signage and escort vehicles.

Fortunately for us, Texas just follows the federal overhang limits, so you don't have to remember anything special or complicated. Here is Texas Transportation Code 621.206 on Extended Loads:

"A vehicle or combination of vehicles may not carry a load that extends more than three feet beyond its front or, except as permitted by other law, or more than four feet beyond its rear."

Just remember, from front to back: "3-4-4" - 3 feet in front, 4 inches on the sides, and 4 feet in the back.

Okay, that's the law. Now what if my boat exceeds those limits?

You're still okay, as long as you apply proper marking to the over-extended load. These markings serve to alert other motorists to the unusual condition, so that they are made aware of, and respond appropriately to the overhanging load.

  Safety flag
Proper marking consists of red or orange fluorescent warning flags measuring at least 18 inches square. Just tie one of these to the tip of your boat hanging out the rear, and everyone will be able to see it dangling there as a warning. Hardware stores have these on hand where they load lumber into vehicles, and I'm sure they would let you buy one, cheap. Or maybe even give one away on the good neighbor policy. Or you can buy a purpose-built safety flag for at little as $3.  At that price, there's no excuse not to have one. These flags are not only highly visible, but also wiggle in the wind behind your truck, so they naturally draw the eye's attention. In the past, I have just used a red shop rag, and tied one corner of the rag to my stern line. Done! Although there was one trip once where I got home and my rag was missing, so the tugging slipstream wind can work the knot loose over time - check that knot for tightness when you load your boat on top of the truck.

If the overhang exceeds 2 feet in width, then you need a flag on each corner. Since canoes and kayaks are pointy, our overhang is less than 2 feet wide, and only one flag on the tip is needed. However, if you're carrying multiple boats side-by-side, then you might need separate flags on each of the outside boats to delineate the extent of the width.

Less than 4 feet overhang,
good with no flag
  Greater than 4 feet
overhang, flag needed
  Greater than 2 feet wide,
corner flags needed

  LED light
Now, at nighttime things get more complicated...  Because it is difficult to see an overhanging load in the dark, illuminated marker lamps are required, mounted on the end of the overhang. You can purchase inexpensive battery powered LED lights  in places like bicycle stores, or online, starting at about $10. And you only need one. Or you can dangle a Cyalume light stick - guaranteed to get people's attention as it sways behind your truck. It may even generate a few UFO sighting reports.

And that's it!  I've never heard of anyone getting a ticket for too much un-flagged boat overhang, but since all it takes is one red rag to comply with the law, it's easy to do and cheap ticket insurance. And most importantly, it helps make you safe on the road, both for yourself as well as for others.

The author, John Rich