Cover Story
Battle mode
OOIDA locked and loaded for fight against speed limiters

By Greg Grisolano, associate editor

After being reviewed for more than a year, the feds' proposal for a speed limiter mandate tosses out more questions than actual plans.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association's government affairs team is in full battle mode to contest a proposed rule to mandate speed limiters in all commercial vehicles weighing more than 13 tons.

The Association opposes a government mandate on this issue, pointing to research that contradicts the feds' claimed safety benefits of speed limiters. A mandate would force a speed differential between heavy trucks and other vehicles using the highways. That would lead to more vehicle interactions, unsafe maneuvering and crashes, a study of speed differentials shows.

"OOIDA has a long history of fighting unnecessary and costly mandates - including efforts to undermine highway safety by governing truck engines at some rate of speed that we are now seemingly going to select out of a hat. OOIDA supports highway patterns where all vehicles travel at a safe rate of uniform speed," said Laura O'Neill-Kaumo, OOIDA government affairs director.

Comment period begins

The long-anticipated rule languished in the government's review process for more than a year before finally publishing on Sept. 7. A 60-day comment period on the notice of proposed rulemaking that aims to mandate speed limiters in vehicles weighing in excess of 26,000 is scheduled to conclude on Nov. 11. At press time, OOIDA officially filed a request to extend the comment period by 60 days.

"This is one of the most significant NPRMs in decades as it relates to the safety of the traveling public, roadway efficiency, and the livelihood of our nation's professional truck drivers," OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer wrote in the request. "One way or another, the outcome of this NPRM will impact everyone."

OOIDA's website, FightingForTruckers.com, has more information about the Association's opposition to the mandate, as well as ways for truckers to contact their lawmakers and oppose a mandate.

The proposal, filed jointly by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, seeks public comment on a variety of issues that generally are resolved prior to filing an NPRM. The issues include the speed at which heavy vehicles should be restricted, the financial impact to small-business truck and bus companies, and whether or not to limit the mandate to new vehicles only or order a retrofit for all trucks.

The costs involved

The plan calls for a three-year lead time from publication of a final rule for manufacturers to meet the proposed requirements.

When it comes to quantifying the costs, NHTSA reports that it expects the bottom-line hit on manufacturers of new heavy vehicles to be "insignificant" because those vehicles already come with engine control units.

The cost to the professionals in the industry is significantly higher, according to the proposed rule, due to increased travel time, hiring additional drivers, and potentially longer delivery times. The agencies estimate costs at more than $1.5 billion annually for 60 mph speed limiters; $514 million annually for 65 mph; and $206 million annually for 68 mph, assuming a 7 percent discount rate. The report also claims that those costs would be offset by fuel savings accrued from driving at lower speeds.

Questionable benefits

"The agencies spent over a year analyzing the numbers behind this NPRM, and the result is still questionable benefits based on cherry-picked research. At the end of the day, there are a lot better ways to achieve improved highway safety, which don't create dangerous speed differentials and don't seek to hurt small businesses," OOIDA's O'Neill-Kaumo said.

As for small truck and bus companies, as well as owner-operators, the agencies' report notes that smaller companies would be at a competitive disadvantage under the new proposed rule.

"Some small businesses currently traveling at higher speeds might not be able to expand quickly enough to make the extra trips necessary to compensate for the increased travel times resulting from limiting their speed," the proposal states. "Instead of these small independent trucking companies buying new trucks and/or hiring additional drivers, we expect that large trucking companies would absorb the additional cargo with their reserve capacity of trucks and drivers."

While the agencies note they have "limited data" on how the rulemaking would affect owner-operators, it estimated that those affected by this rulemaking stand to lose $54 million in labor income.

In explaining the proposed safety benefits, the proposed rule states that the agencies have chosen not to include an estimate of crashes avoided by mandating speed limiters, instead focusing on the supposed benefits of reducing crash severity. The agencies invite public comment and any additional information on this matter.

"Although this approach is conservative and the agencies believe that speed-limiting devices will likely reduce both the severity and risk of crashes, the agencies have greater confidence that the estimated benefits described below will be fully realized because, by focusing on crash severity, the agencies are able to isolate more effectively the effects of speed reduction on safety," the proposed rule states.

Further estimates of the number of lives saved and injuries mitigated vary in the report based on whether the final rule will mandate speeds at 60, 65, or 68 mph.

"The agencies estimate that limiting the speed of heavy vehicles to 60 mph would save 162 to 498 lives annually, limiting the speed of heavy vehicles to

65 mph would save 63 to 214 lives annually, and limiting the speed of heavy vehicles to 68 mph would save 27 to 96 lives annually," agency officials state in the NPRM.

"Although we believe that the 60 mph alternative would result in additional safety benefits, we are not able to quantify the 60 mph alternative with the same confidence as the 65 mph and 68 mph alternatives."

Who's pulling the strings?

The joint rulemaking was prompted by a 2006 petition from the American Trucking Associations and Road Safe America. ATA also filed a request to extend the deadline for comments, by 30 days, and called the proposal a "dramatic departure" from their original request.

Under the proposed rule, NHTSA will have jurisdiction over newly manufactured trucks and could, through this rulemaking process, mandate that all new trucks be equipped with activated speed-limiting devices.

While not publicly disclosed, FMCSA's ability to regulate speed limiters would be limited to trucks currently on the road. Although mandating retrofits or activation of the device would be a stretch of the agency's authority, the agency would be able to prohibit trucks without activated speed-limiting devices from operating in interstate commerce.

The subject of retrofitting comes up in the proposed rulemaking as another request for additional comment. Although the 2006 petition requests that all trucks manufactured after 1990 be fitted with electronic speed governors, the agencies are concerned that such requirements could prove to be too costly. LL