For more than a decade, most large commercial trucks have been equipped with electronic technology that can limit the speed at which they hurtle down the nation’s highways.
But federal officials have not required the devices to be switched on, despite requests by safety advocates as well as by the industry’s top trade group, the American Trucking Associations, or ATA.
In late August, federal authorities finally announced plans to mandate electronic speed limiters in new trucks and buses that weigh at least 13 tons. Yet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it remains uncertain whether their use should be required on heavy-duty vehicles already on America’s roads.
NHTSA also has yet to determine whether the speed limit for new trucks and buses should be set at 60, 65 or 68 miles per hour. At 60 mph, the agency says, nearly 500 lives could be saved a year; at 68 mph, roughly 100 lives could be saved. NHTSA is taking public comment on the proposal through Nov. 7.
Safety advocates have long questioned why cars and trucks are engineered to travel far above even the highest speed limits.
In the late 1970s under President Jimmy Carter, NHTSA chief Joan Claybrook championed a rule preventing speedometers from showing any speed higher than 85 mph. But the rule, intended as a
psychological deterrent to speeding, was dropped in 1982, early in the Reagan administration.
More recently, the focus has been on reducing speed through new technology. In Germany last year, Ford debuted its “Intelligent Speed Limiter” to enable drivers to set a maximum speed on the S-Max minivan sold in Europe. The device, promoted as a way to avoid speeding tickets, electronically adjusts the amount of fuel delivered to the engine.
While most people probably aren’t aware of the speed limiters already installed under the hoods of large trucks, at least one major carrier began using them two decades ago. Schneider National Inc., based in Green Bay, Wis., says it installed the devices and set them at 65 mph beginning in 1996.
Outside of the U.S., some governments already have imposed rules. Two Canadian provinces, Ontario and Quebec, require large commercial trucks with electronic limiters to be set at no higher than 65 mph. The European Commission has required limiters on 13-ton trucks since 1992 and now has a similar mandate for smaller trucks. According to NHTSA, the settings must be less than 56 mph.
In the U.S., speeding is a factor in more than 1,000 fatalities a year involving trucks and buses weighing 13 tons or more, according to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, or FARS, a federal database. In 2015, total car and truck deaths linked to excessive speed were estimated at 9,557, up 3 percent from the previous year.
“This is basic physics,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said in a news release last month announcing the proposed mandate for speed limiters. “Even small increases in speed have large effects on the force of impact. Setting the speed limit on heavy vehicles makes sense for safety and the environment.”
Requiring truck speed limiters would also save more than $1 billion a year in fuel costs, according to federal officials.
But the trucking industry is divided, due mainly to different financial incentives for big trucking lines and independent operators.
ATA President and CEO Chris Spear said his group, which includes giants in the industry, is pleased that “almost 10 years after we first petitioned them,” federal officials have decided to move forward. “Speed is a major contributor to truck accidents and by reducing speeds, we believe we can contribute to a reduction in accidents and fatalities on our highways,” he said.
But independent truckers — paid by the number of loads they deliver and how quickly they can deliver them — counter that limiters would lead to more accidents by creating speed differences between cars and trucks. “Highways are safest when all vehicles travel at the same relative speed,” said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
While some research has raised concerns about differing speed limits for cars and trucks, experts say it’s clear that the faster a truck is moving, the more catastrophic the damage it will cause in a collision.
What’s key is to keep “giant trucks” from “having even more of a devastating impact when they crash,” said Henry Jasny, senior vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Many of the more than 300 public comments already submitted have come from independent truckers who contend that speed limiters would put them at an economic disadvantage, while also producing more traffic congestion, road rage incidents and accidents.
“I’ve made an enormous investment in my equipment,” wrote Kevin Levine of Elkins Park, Pa. “The large trucking companies that push these types of measures simply want to hamstring their competitors.”
Leaders of Road Safe America, an advocacy group that along with the ATA petitioned federal highway officials a decade ago, are also troubled by the proposed regulation — but for a far different reason.
“It is extremely frustrating to say the least that it has taken 10 years to get this proposed rule, and to add insult to injury, to see that this new rule only applies to new trucks is outrageous,” said Steve Owings, the advocacy group’s co-founder.
“It’s like the government finally determined that wearing seat belts saves lives, but recommends they only be worn in future cars even though they have already been in cars for decades.”
Owings said he is hoping that, during the NHTSA proposal’s public comment period, support will be “overwhelming” for extending the rule to existing trucks that already are equipped with speed limiters.