Truckers call it the Turner Proposal. Some highway officials say it's the centipede issue.

But by any other name, the idea of former Federal Highway Administrator Francis C. Turner has the potential for the greatest productivity gain in trucking since deregulation.The proposal came from a paper by Mr. Turner presented three years ago to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. It called for spreading the load of a highway truck over a greater number of axles - raising legal weight capacity and reducing pavement wear at the same time.

The idea - to create a nine-axle, double-trailer vehicle with tandem axles on the tractor, both trailers and a converter dolly - struck a chord

rarely heard in the industry, winning praise from truckers, equipment makers and pavement people. The concept was simple.

Instead of trying to build highways for heavier and heavier vehicles . . . let's build a truck to fit the highways, said Mr. Turner in an interview.

The proposal, currently under study by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences, would raise truck gross vehicle weight allowed on federal aid highways from the current 80,000-pound limit to 112,000 pounds, boosting productivity for truckers and shippers.

The Turner vehicle, as it has come to be known, would also lower legal tandem axle loadings from 34,000 to 25,000 pounds, potentially increasing the life of a section of pavement from 20 years to 40, according to Mr. Turner.

Big Cost Savings Seen

That means billions of bucks, said Mr. Turner, who retired from the Federal Highway Administration in 1972.

The Turner vehicle, with twin trailers each 30 to 32 feet long, would resemble current double rigs, using 28-foot trailers and would fit within the same track. And while the TRB's study of this and other possible Turner configurations is scheduled to be complete in March of 1990, officials are already sounding positive about the effect on highway safety.

Given the current state of technology, it is possible that Turner vehicles can be designed to be at least as safe as current designs, said senior program officer Ted Chavala.

While trucking interests support the general Turner idea, there is disagreement over the size and benefits of a new vehicle.

We're still a long way from reaching conclusions about how this is going to work, said John Reith, director of highway policy for the American Trucking Associations.

The concern among truckers such as like William Giles, vice president of research and engineering for Ruan Transportation Management Systems of Des Moines, Iowa, is that the Turner Proposal favors highway interests, leaving insufficient productivity gains for industry.

The worry is that the weight and cost of new trailers with extra axles, in the current Turner Vehicle, will outstrip the benefits from the gain in cargo weight.

Truckers differ on which segments of the industry would benefit most from the new design. Some say it would favor less-than-truckload fleets that already use doubles. Others say it could help bulk haulers.

Many less-than-truckload carriers fill trailers with loads that do not reach the 80,000-pound limit. More or longer trailers allow them to carry more freight without increasing operating costs significantly.

But both Mr. Reith and Mr. Giles feel the Turner trailers should be longer. That arrangement would help truckers who reach limits of both weight and cubic capacity depending on their load density. Mr. Giles favors twin trailers 34 to 36 feet long with a tandem weight limit of 30,000 pounds.

Mr. Turner sees his design as more than just an upgrade for existing doubles operations - rather as an eventual replacement for the standard tractor-trailer rig using the 48-foot van.

The trucking industry has almost reached its economic ceiling, Mr. Turner said. I don't think we can continue with the present heavy vehicles given the current economic picture.

As for timing, Mr. Reith agrees that the idea is far less futuristic than a Star Wars vehicle because the technology and much of the equipment already exist. Mr. Turner said the industry should set a goal of 10 years to make a transition to the new vehicles.