Not so fast

Speeding, generally speaking, is bad. It tends to increase accident frequency by reducing the margin for evasive maneuvers, and it increases accident severity – especially in rear-end collisions – by creating more force at impact. Speeding wastes fuel and, to a degree, reduces equipment life. And speeding makes your drivers and trucks a target for law enforcement and roadside inspections.

But speed is relative. There are times when it is neither illegal nor particularly risky to drive fast. For example, on a dry clear day on an uncongested Western interstate, a large truck might legally and safely travel at 75 mph. That truck will burn more fuel than a slower truck would, but the truck owner might conclude that the productivity benefits of driving at the speed limit outweigh the additional costs. He probably is wrong, but that’s his decision.

The point is, there is no single maximum reasonable speed; it depends on posted speed limit, traffic and weather. There might be consensus among responsible trucking operations that 80 mph is never acceptable, but not everyone agrees that 68 mph, for example, should be the maximum top speed. Apparently, however, the American Trucking Associations’ board of directors thinks 68 mph is the fastest large trucks should travel. In February, the board endorsed a proposal that trucks be governed at 68 mph at the factory.

ATA’s proposal has much to commend it. First, it’s great public relations. It’s easy for the trucking industry to advocate slower speeds and tougher enforcement. But calling for a specific restriction on the trucking industry itself makes a bold statement and earns the trucking industry some credibility in the safety debate. Ultimately, the trucking industry must take some dramatic steps to soften its public image, and this is a step in that direction.

A universal governed speed also would be valuable in the fight against driver turnover. Drivers bristle at speed control, and motor carriers often find it difficult to enforce limits on drivers. For many carriers, it’s hard enough to keep seats filled without losing drivers over a few miles per hour. Others stick to their guns on speed and suffer the consequences. If speed were off the table, those carriers presumably could exercise sound speed management without losing drivers.

Still, ATA’s plan raises concerns. One is the one-size-fits-all approach. An ATA working group on speed management found in a survey that 75 percent of the trucks evaluated already used speed governors and that most were set at 70 mph or lower. But ATA’s estimate doesn’t exactly square with data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau. The agency reported in its 2002 Vehicle Inventory and Use Survey that slightly fewer than half – 49.3 percent – of all highway tractors were equipped with road speed governors. But 67.1 percent of tractors pulling double trailers – such as those operated by the major LTL and package delivery carriers – were so equipped.

So ATA’s 75 percent figure may be skewed somewhat toward large motor carriers. No doubt, these are trucking leaders – ones that, owing to their liability exposure, are most likely to adopt industry best practices. But the question remains whether these carriers’ practices ought to be adopted as a blanket rule for everyone.

ATA’s proposal also needs real-world validation. For example, how might governing all trucks at 68 mph affect traffic flows? What about the potential for road rage when automobile drivers are stuck behind a large truck in the left lane that’s trying to pass even slower traffic at 68 mph? Can governors be truly tamperproof? These operational concerns may prove unwarranted, but they certainly bear further study.

Regardless, ATA has succeeded in sparking an overdue industry debate on speed.

We should have gotten there faster.