Slow going on speeding

It’s 2025. Trucks built today run on organic refuse like banana peels and stale bread. The feds now track all drivers 24/7 to ensure compliance with hours-of-service rules. Owing to a severe labor shortage, however, many of these “drivers” now sit in cubicles as they monitor up to three computer-controlled tractor-trailers simultaneously.

And the last heavy-duty truck built without a federally mandated speed limiter is scrapped, completing the transition to 100 percent speed control at 68 mph. Not that this really matters anymore. Due to a surging U.S. population, the proliferation of interstate toll plazas to fund local operating budgets and no meaningful investment in highway infrastructure, the top sustained speed on the U.S. interstate system rarely exceeds 55 mph except in Montana and parts of North Dakota.

Now back to 2006. Last month, the American Trucking Associations formally proposed that new trucks be equipped with tamper-resistant devices preventing them from traveling faster than 68 mph. Even if the feds began a rulemaking tomorrow, final rules wouldn’t come until at least 2008. And since by ATA’s reckoning, the useful life of an over-the-road truck is about 10 years, a transition likely wouldn’t be complete until well beyond 2020.

ATA’s principal objective surely isn’t a transition to speed limiters over a 12- to 20-year period. But what is the real agenda? The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association would have you believe that ATA’s plan is little more than a “Trojan horse” – a gift to safety advocates to earn the political goodwill needed later to spring “heavier trucks” and “exploitable foreign labor” on an unsuspecting public.

Yes, ATA’s proposal as drafted is more public relations than an aggressive tactic to curb truck speeding. But so what? If OOIDA were more concerned about the trucking industry’s image than about playing to its own membership, it, too, would endorse speed limiters. OOIDA isn’t stupid, however. It can’t defend publicly the right to speed, so instead it attacks ATA. Surprisingly, OOIDA doesn’t list drunk driving or flag burning as part of ATA’s hidden agenda.

ATA accepts that a serious debate is more important than the plan’s specifics. “We believe this goes a long way toward a national dialogue on excessive speed,” said ATA President Bill Graves. “This is something we are proud to lead on.” The industry is sending an important message: Most trucks don’t speed. ATA can’t prove this claim, but by voluntarily submitting – eventually – to speed limiters, it emphasizes that a minority of truck drivers speed. And it implies that the real speedster on the highways is the four-wheeler.

In a way, OOIDA raises this point itself. One of its objections to ATA’s proposal is that 30 states have speed limits of 70 mph or higher on their interstate highways, so limiting truck speed would create a more dangerous situation by forcing vehicles to travel at different speeds. OK, but why not slow everyone down rather than drive trucks faster? ATA supports a nationwide 65 mph speed limit for all highway users. Indeed, its stated reason for a speed limiter set at 68 mph is to allow a cushion beyond 65 mph for safe passing.

ATA’s approach is less aggressive than a petition backed by safety advocacy group Road Safe America and several major carriers to require that the speed governors already incorporated within heavy-duty truck engines be set at 68 mph. ATA says a tamper-resistant chip is needed because technicians can easily change engine settings. But the Road Safe America plan includes a reasonable enforcement mechanism: An incorrect setting would be an out-of-service item.

If the goal is slowing down as many trucks as possible as quickly as possible, the Road Safe America petition clearly is better. ATA’s gradual approach, however, reduces the disruption and road rage that might result from an instant switch to slower speeds. But by then, highway congestion probably will have solved the speeding problem anyway.