Independent trucking leaders in Maryland told Gov. Harry Hughes yesterday they would return to the highways before a nationwide settlement is reached in a truckers' strike if he raised the truck-weight limit on state roads to the federal standard of 80,000 pounds.

Hughes said he was "inclined to do something" about the truckers' request, but he would not say precisely what action he would take or when he would take it. One Hughes aide said the governor needed some time "to clear out the cobwebs of his understanding of the issue" and to present the idea to an executive review panel in the legislature.

Maryland is the only state along the Eastern seaboard with a truck-weight limit below 80,000 pounds, and one of only five such states in the county. The lifting of the restrictive limits in those states has been a key demand of the independent truckers in their three-week-old protest across the country.

"The truck-weight limit is the only major issue keeping our drivers from going back," said Rita Bontz, vice president of the Maryland Independent Truckers Association. Bontz told Hughes that if he lifted the state's 73,200 pound limit, truckers in Maryland and two neighbouring states, which she would not identify, would return to work.

Hughes smiled when he heard that statement, and responded: "I bet you say that in every state."

While Hughes and the state trucking leaders met amicably in Annapolis, attempts by Carte administration officials to reach a nationwide settlement to the shutdown failed yesterday when leaders of various trucking groups argued over who really spoke for the country's 100,000 independent haulers.

Mike Parkhurst, president of the California-based Independent Truckers Association, the largest of the contending truckers' organizations, charged that the White House was virtually ignoring his group's demands while "listening to any pair of truckers who come off the street and claim they're an association."

Parkhurst refused to attend a five hour mediation session last night at the White House between truckers and Carter administration officials. Instead, he held a press conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at which he announced that 3,000 independent truckers would gather in Englishtown, N.J., on Saturday for a protest demonstration.

"A lot of the independent truckers are now ready to lose their trucks and even burn them up in protest to White House ineptness," said Parkhurst.

Across the country, there were more reports of trucker-related violence as the protest moved into its fourth week. In Mryland, state police reported that two truckers hauling produce from North Carolina up Rte. 301 in Cecil County were shot at by snipers using high-powered rifles. One of the truckers suffered superficial wounds to his forearm. In Illinois, West Virginia and Kentucky, National Guard troops were called up to patrol fuel storage areas and highways where sniping attacks flared. CAPTION: Picture, With truckers idle, a King City, Calif., plant was forced to throw out tomatoes. AP