Cover Story
Feds blindly forging ahead
Federal agencies have struggled for nearly a decade to justify speed limiting trucks

By David Tanner, senior editor

Some things have changed and others have stayed the same in the nine years since the American Trucking Associations and Roadsafe America filed their petition in an attempt to get speed limiters mandated for heavy trucks.

ATA and Roadsafe are still at it, but to date there is no final rule or even a proposed rule available for public view. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently announced that that’s about to change.

Foxx appeared before a congressional subcommittee in April and said that a notice of proposed rulemaking for speed limiters was on track to hit the Federal Register on or about July 27.

If or when it happens, it would be the first time in nine years that the public would see official language on what a proposed rule would look like from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. It would also trigger a 60-day comment period.

OOIDA’s long-held position remains in opposition to a government mandate.

Association leadership wrote to Foxx on April 23, as FMCSA and NHTSA were poised to send a draft of their proposal to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review. In the letter, OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer says that by pursuing a speed-limiter mandate, the agencies are opening the door to serious unintended consequences for highway safety.

“OOIDA writes to ensure that you and OMB understand that when cars and trucks operate at different speeds on the highway there is a significant negative impact on safety,” Spencer stated.

“Traffic is more dynamic and less predictable. Accidents increase. Your agencies must ensure you do not produce a mandate that will arbitrarily add dangerous car-truck speed differentials to our nation’s highways,” Spencer wrote.

Illinois, Texas, Ohio and others have all worked in recent years to reduce the differential between cars and trucks by altering their speed limits. Their efforts were based on research that shows uniform speeds are the safest. Spencer cites this research in the letter.

Steven Johnson of the University of Arkansas found in a 2005 study that different speeds were shown to produce more interactions between vehicles. A 1993 report to the Transportation Research Board published by John E. Baerwald found that vehicles traveling at or about the same speed minimized the need for passing, overtaking and lane changes.

“There is no clean and substantial evidence that supports the use of different posted speed limits,” OOIDA states in an additional white paper attached to the letter.

“OOIDA obviously does not condone speeding or any other unsafe driving habits. In fact, OOIDA strongly encourages truckers to comply with all state laws and federal regulations,” the Association states in its supplemental information. “OOIDA advocates for many initiatives that will increase safe operations in the trucking industry as well as on highways throughout the United States such as a comprehensive entry-level driver-training rule (the Association is currently an active member in the negotiated rulemaking process), and increased supply chain stakeholder accountability.”

In closing, Spencer urged the agencies to make a full assessment of research by going beyond an FMCSA-sponsored study that showed a “safety benefit” for speed limiters.

“To the casual observer, mandating speed limiters on heavy-duty vehicles might seem like a ‘safety silver bullet.’ Professional drivers know, however, that highway safety is not so simple,” Spencer wrote.

“Setting a policy in one area can have significant unintended consequences in others. OOIDA is not pushing for faster speed limits. But whatever a jurisdiction decides, the speed limit ought to be the same limit for all vehicles in order to foster a predictable, safer highway driving environment.”

In correspondence with Land Line in 2013, a NHTSA spokesman said the agency possessed no data that would show whether large trucks involved in crashes had speed limiters or did not have speed limiters.

“The agency does not have crash data related to activated speed limiters in our databases,” the spokesman said at the time.

NHTSA’s scope in the joint rulemaking lies with new vehicles. FMCSA’s role would prohibit vehicles engaged in interstate commerce to operate without an activated speed limiter.

In mid May, the agencies pushed back their proposed dates one month from July to August. Pushing back dates has occurred a number of times throughout the process, 21 times according to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who questioned Foxx during the April hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development.

Collins asked Foxx why federal agencies have delayed a rule so many times since NHTSA granted the ATA-Roadsafe petition in 2011.

“The FMCSA itself believes that this regulation would decrease the number of fatal crashes annually and would have minimal cost since these governors are already installed on many trucks,” Collins said. “Yet this regulation has lingered within the department since, I believe, 2011 and has been delayed 21 times. Could you tell us why the department has failed to issue these regulations on speed limiters so many years after the initial petition, despite widespread support and evidence of their effectiveness?”

Foxx said the matter predates him. In fact it predated his predecessor, Ray LaHood, as well, dating back to then-Secretary Mary Peters in the G.W. Bush administration.

“From an agency perspective, there has been a lot of work done to quantify the safety benefits in terms of crashes, injuries and fatalities that would be prevented,” Foxx told Collins. “The department also had to complete analysis of fatality analysis reporting systems (FARS) and general estimate systems data as well as research to provide sound estimates of safety benefits prior to submitting the rulemaking proposal,” he said.

“Having said all of that, I can tell you that there is a notice of proposed rulemaking that is working its way through the department currently, and I’m looking forward to getting that out as soon as possible, hopefully no later than the fall.”

National

speed limit?

During the month of April, the ATA was campaigning to promote speed limiters on trucks and to establish a national speed limit of 65 mph.

The thought of a national speed limit brought together a familiar group of associations – OOIDA and the National Motorists Association – to battle back against the ATA campaign. OOIDA and NMA played a substantial role in the backlash against the 55 mph national speed limit in the 1970s.

“The ATA is searching for a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” NMA President Gary Biller said in the statement. “They want to turn back the clock from today’s speed limits at a time when U.S. highways are statistically safer than at any time in the past. Much safer, in fact, than when the federal government regulated the maximum speed of all vehicles to 55 mph between 1974 and 1995. It makes you wonder why.”

ATA issued its press release on April 20, claiming that driving “too fast for conditions” or “over the posted speed limit” were primary reasons for 18 percent of all fatal crashes “where a large truck was deemed at fault.”

The National Motorists Association and OOIDA pointed out that from 2011 to 2013, 80 percent of fatal crashes that involved a large truck occurred on roads with speed limits posted at or below 65 mph, and that 60 percent of the crashes were on roads posted at or below 55 mph.

The groups also point out that many of the large fleets – the ones equipped with speed limiters, electronic logging and other so-called safety technologies – have higher crash rates than independent truckers that do not operate with those technologies.

“Larger trucking firms are already speed-limiting their fleets and yet it is the trucks without artificial limiters that are much safer on the road,” Biller stated. “So why do the big guys want to regulate everyone, cars and one-truck or small fleet carriers alike, down to their less-safe level?”

OOIDA’s Spencer said slowing down trucks may burn less fuel, but that also forces a speed differential between cars and trucks.

“While the big carrier executives who are proponents of speed limiters talk about improved safety, when you talk to professional drivers, the first thing they mention is how speed limiters compromise safety and increase risk of accidents between trucks and cars,” Spencer stated, adding that another tradeoff is a driver’s time.

“Since virtually all over-the-road carriers pay only for miles driven and nothing for the driver’s time, it’s easy to see who wins and who loses economically,” he said. “Nearly all of the big truckload motor carriers work tirelessly to grow regulations and mandates that they claim will improve safety. However, crash numbers show just the opposite.”

At press time in May, the joint NHTSA-FMCSA proposed rule had not yet gone to the White House Office of Management and Budget. Typically, a proposal will reside at OMB for a few weeks before advancing or being kicked back to the authoring agencies.LL