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September 5, 2016 4:00 AM, EDT
Speed Limiters Proposed
DOT Issues Notice After Decade-Long Wait
John Sommers II for TT

This story appears in the Sept. 5 print edition of Transport Topics.

The federal government has issued a proposed rule requiring new heavy­duty vehicles to be equipped with speed-limiter devices that many large trucking fleets have been using voluntarily for several years.

However, the joint proposal of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will not require that trucks on U.S. highways with 1999 and newer engines limit their speeds, nor will the speed limiters be tamperproof, in an effort to reduce potential additional costs to vehicle manufacturers.

The proposal does not specify a speed that will be adopted in a final rule but suggests that setting the limiters to 60, 65, or 68, would save lives and reduce fuel use. The devices eventually would need to be capable of verification by regulators or law enforcement via onboard diagnostics.

Regulators said the need for a rule became evident after an analysis of crashes showed the speed of heavy vehicles likely contributed to about 10,440 fatalities from 2004 to 2013.

“These vehicles carry the heaviest loads, and small increases in their speed have larger effects on the force of impact in a crash,” according to the proposal. “Given this fact, NHTSA is proposing to require multipurpose passenger vehicles, trucks, buses and school buses with a gross vehicle weight rating of 26,000 pounds to be equipped with a speed limiting device.”

Comments on the proposed rule will be accepted for 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. The rule wouldn’t be effective until three years after the final rule is published in the register.

The proposed rule, announced Aug. 26 after 10 years in the making, has been generally well- received by large carriers but has been criticized by the Owner- Operator Independent Drivers Association and Road Safe America, a nonprofit safety group that petitioned federal regulators in 2006 to adopt a speed-limiter rule.

American Trucking Associations, which also petitioned the agency for a rule in 2006, called the proposal a “potential step forward for safety.”

“We are pleased NHTSA and FMCSA have, almost 10 years after we first petitioned them, released this proposal to mandate the electronic limiting of commercial vehicle speeds,” ATA President Chris Spear said. “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.”

Although ATA originally recommended reducing the maximum speed to 68 mph in 2006, the federation in 2008 endorsed a national speed limit of no more than 65 mph for all vehicles, a limit that the Truckload Carriers Association also supports.

Ironically, many medium to large motor carriers have been limiting the speed of their fleets well before trucking regulators even began developing the joint-agency proposal, some as far back as the early 1990s.

Pittsburgh-based Pitt Ohio Express has speed-limited its fleet of 1,500 trucks to “around 65 mph” for many years, said Brad Caven, the carrier’s vice president of operations.

“A slower truck is a safer truck,” Caven said. “And yes, obviously, there is an mpg impact from it. When you’re going millions of miles, you’re talking about significant potential fuel reductions.”

Lee Long, director of fleet services for Lexington, South Carolina-based Southeastern Freight Lines, said his company’s 3,200 trucks have been speed-limited at 65 mph since the early 1990s, when electronic engines first came on the market.

“What we find is that running limiters at a consistent level across-the-board provides us the best fuel economy for the company and performance for the drivers,” Long said. “When we limit the speed, we also control our insurance rates.”

Even customers often ask the carrier if its trucks are governed so that their freight “doesn’t get strung all over the road when there’s an accident,” Long said.

Greenwich, Connecticut-based XPO Logistics spokesman Gary Frantz said XPO’s 11,500 trucks in North America have been equipped with speed governors set at 65 mph for nearly a decade.

“In our experience, the primary benefit of having the fleet governed at 65 mph, versus a higher speed, is safety-related,” Frantz said. “Drivers have more reaction time, resulting in fewer accidents and near-misses. We’ve also realized lower maintenance costs, improved fuel economy and a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions through the use of governors.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association said the proposal would be dangerous for all highway users by creating speed differentials that could “lead to more crashes and promote road rage among other motorists.”

“Highways are safest when all vehicles travel at the same relative speed,” said OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer.

The proposal estimates that limiting the speed of heavy vehicles to 60 mph would save 162 to 498 lives annually, limiting the speed to 65 mph would save 63 to 214 lives annually, and limiting the speed to 68 mph would save 27 to 96 lives annually. “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,” according to the proposed rule.

However, Road Safe America President Steve Owings called the proposed rule “absurd.”

“I’m glad that we got something we can react to, but react we must,” Owings said. “As proposed, it would only apply to future trucks. How outrageous.”

Owings added, “It will take 20 or 25 years to get whole fleets covered, at that rate. Our intent was, and still is, trucks that already have the capability built in be required to use them.”