Those overstuffed containers have been shedding pounds.

After almost a year of living with the overweight container act, importers, exporters and the transportation industry say the controversial law is working.Fewer containers are arriving overweight in the United States, and overseas shippers generally are providing accurate weight certificates along with the shipping documentation.

In those instances where truckers are caught pulling an overweight load and it turns out that the shipper lied on the shipping documentation, truckers are slapping liens on the cargo, and the U.S. importers of record are immediately reimbursing truckers for the fines.

There are no hard statistics yet, but Bruce McMillan, director of member services at the American Association of Exporters and Importers, estimates that the number of overweight containers entering the country has dropped by 30 percent to 40 percent.

The Intermodal Safe Container Transportation Act, which became effective on April 9, 1997, was designed to remove the scourge of overweight containers on the nation's roads.

Most states limit the weight of a truck pulling a container to 80,000 pounds. This translates to a container load of about 50,000 pounds. Overweight containers damage roads, and more importantly, are a great safety hazard.

''This was an industry run amok until the bill was passed,'' Pat White, a commercial vehicle enforcement officer with the California Highway Patrol, told the annual conference of the California Trucking Association.

''In most cases, the act is working well,'' said Greg Stefflre, a Long Beach, Calif., attorney who helped draft the bill for the American Trucking Associations.

$14,000 FINES

The trucking industry pushed for passage of the bill because it allows the trucker to pass on a fine toa fine to the shipper if the documentation is inaccurate. Overweight fines can be as much as $14,000

''This is primarily an import issue,'' Mr. McMillan said. ''Importers are telling their overseas suppliers, 'You have to calm down on the overweights.' ''

Although passed several years ago, implementation of the law was delayed because shipping lines and shippers complained they needed more time to gear up for the documentation requirements involved.

Under the act, the shipper must supply a weight certificate, and that certificate must be passed on from carrier to carrier to the final destination.

Before the act was passed, shippers here and abroad had no incentive to comply with overweight laws because the citation for pulling heavy boxes always went to the trucker. In fact, shippers saved on transportation costs by stuffing as much cargo into a container as it could hold.


Billing a U.S. exporter for an overweight fine is relatively easy because the company is domiciled here. Passing the fine on to an overseas exporter is not so easy.

However, the act allows a trucker to place a lien on the cargo and hold it until the U.S. importer reimburses the trucker for the fine. If the importer refuses, the trucker is free to sell the merchandise. Since the value of the shipment is often far greater than the fine, the importer will reimburse the trucker without even going to court.

''I for one have done a lot of this. When we give notice, the receiver pays the bill,'' Mr. Stefflre said.

It is becoming less necessary, however, to resort to strong-arm tactics.

''We've gotten a lot of calls from members and from shippers all over the world asking for information about the act,'' said Dave Osiecki, executive director of the Intermodal Conference of the ATA. ''Word has gotten out about the act.''

U.S. exporters, especially the larger ones, have noticed little change in how they do business.

Blue Diamond Growers, a large almond exporter, complied with weight requirements long before the act was passed because of the liability the company would incur in the event of an accident.

''If a school bus was involved, it could wipe us out,'' said Jil Morley, transportation administrator.


Shipping lines likewise have taken the law in stride. ''I wouldn't say it has been uneventful, but quite honestly, we have not had too many problems,'' said Ole Sweedlund, director of North American operations at Hanjin Shipping Co.

Hanjin has educated its overseas offices not to release containers until the shipper supplies a valid weight certificate.

In those instances where the certificate clearly indicates the container is an overweight, Hanjin will contact the consignee in the United States and have the company remove some of the merchandise before the container is released.

Nevertheless some overseas shippers are either unaware of the law or choose to ignore it because they save money by stuffing as much cargo as possible into a container.

Trucking attorneys advise their clients to turn down those overweight loads.

''My personal belief is that no carrier has to take an overweight,'' Mr. Stefflre said. Even if the trucker is able to pass the fines on to the importer, a history of violations can affect the trucker's operating authority.

In many instances, pulling an overweight container is like carrying a time bomb that endangers the trucker and others around him. ''I once saw a 116,000-pound 20-foot container. It's amazing that the tires didn't blow out,'' Mr. Stefflre said.