Tantamount to a mulligan for motor carriers

By Greg Grisolano, associate editor

Calling it just one more in a long line of initiatives aimed at getting the government to perform the duties that should be the responsibility of large fleets – to screen, train and monitor their drivers – the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association asked federal regulators to reconsider a proposal that would mandate speed limiters on heavy vehicles.

In comments filed Dec. 7 on a joint proposal offered by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to mandate speed limiters on vehicles weighing more than 26,000 pounds, OOIDA said the proposal is tantamount to a mulligan for large motor carriers. They seek to “level the playing field” because of “the competitive disadvantage that they brought upon themselves by their own adoption of speed limiters.”

“Drivers without speed limiters provide a more efficient transportation option because they can operate at the speed limit or the prevailing highway speed, and speed-limited trucks cannot,” OOIDA’s comments stated. “OOIDA is most concerned that speed limiters will make the safest roads – the highways – more dangerous.”

More than 6,700 comments were submitted as of the filing deadline. The majority of those opposed to the proposal say the risks posed by increasing vehicle interactions via speed differentials outweigh any purported safety benefit of slowing large trucks and buses down.

OOIDA opposes mandatory speed limiters, pointing to research that contradicts the feds’ claimed “safety benefits,” as it 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. The Association challenges the assertion that slowing trucks down will lead to safer roadways, saying the data the agencies used to reach those conclusions in the regulatory impact analysis is deeply flawed, and fails to consider the documented risks created by speed differentials between passenger and commercial motor vehicles.

A Sept. 7 joint notice of proposed rulemaking by NHTSA and FMCSA sought public comment on a variety of issues connected with speed limiters, including whether to set the speed at 60, 65 or 68 mph, and whether or not a proposed mandate should include a retrofit for all vehicles. The agencies claim that reducing the travel speed of large vehicles will lead to a reduction in the severity of crashes, thereby reducing the number of fatal and serious injuries and reducing property damage.

In its 41 pages of comments, OOIDA cites several examples from members and other truckers who currently drive speed-limited vehicles, and the challenges they face. OOIDA asks the agencies “to recognize these issues and withdraw the rulemaking proceeding.”

“Trucks operating at speeds lower than the speed limit create rolling roadblocks and barriers to on-ramps that frustrate automobile drivers,” the comments stated. “Trying to achieve or maintain highway speed, those drivers make unpredictable and dangerous decisions that cause accidents. Speed-limited drivers must drive more hours under these more difficult driving conditions, impacting their safety and health, in order to earn the same compensation. The agencies have not taken into consideration these serious safety, health and economic consequences, especially on small-business motor carriers.”

The Association cited split speeds as the primary concern for public safety, something a speed limiter mandate would exacerbate, particularly in states like Texas, where speed limits are as high as 85 mph. Those differentials, OOIDA argues, create more dynamic interaction between cars and trucks than if they were all traveling predictably at the prevailing rate of speed. Only nine states still impose differential speed limits for cars and heavy-duty trucks. OOIDA has lobbied extensively to encourage states to move to uniform speeds for all vehicles.

Studies cited by OOIDA, including a 2005 analysis

of speed differentials on rural interstate highways by

Dr. Steven L. Johnson of the University of Arkansas, show that as the speed of an individual vehicle deviates from the mean traffic speed on a roadway, the number of interactions between vehicles increases and the potential for accidents increases. Johnson’s study found that the frequency of interactions with other vehicles by a vehicle traveling 10 mph below the posted speed limit was 227 percent higher than those moving at traffic speed. OOIDA pointed out that while the NPRM quotes from that same study, it “fails to include his finding that speed differentials lead to more crashes.”

OOIDA’s comments also criticized the agencies’ cost benefit analysis, identifying many deficiencies in the quality of data used, including:

  • Lack of real world data on the travel speeds of heavy vehicles prior to a crash.
  • Small non-representative samples of observed travel speeds.
  • The agencies did not know which crashes in their baseline involved heavy vehicles that were already speed limited.

Other national groups who filed comments opposing the proposed mandate or expressing concerns with the proposal include the National Motorists Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, The National Shippers Strategic Transportation Council, The Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Michigan Department of Transportation. Several state trucking associations also filed comments against the proposed mandate.

The American Trucking Associations, which initially sought a mandate on speed limiters in a petition filed in 2006, filed comments opposing the proposed rule. ATA’s criticism of the proposed mandate is that it lacks the necessary data and research demonstrating “it would not create new safety hazards that might outweigh any safety benefits anticipated by the agencies.” LL