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HOT TOPIC U.S. moves closer to speed limiters

WASHINGTON, DC — U.S. regulators have taken one step closer to mandating speed limiters on heavy trucks, with an Aug. 26 proposal from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association (FMCSA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The 118-page document outlines the history of the speed limiter issue in the U.S. While it cites experience in Ontario, Quebec, Japan, Australia and the European Union, the proposal does not yet recommend any specific speed limits.

Instead, the U.S. proposal lists the estimated effects of several speed-reducing scenarios. According to the strictest end of the proposal, limiting the speed of heavy vehicles to 60 miles per hour (about 95 kilometers per hour) would save 162 to 498 lives annually. On the lenient end, the proposal estimates that forcing a speed that maxes out at 68 miles per hour (just shy of 110 kilometers per hour) would save 27 to 96 lives annually.

“This is basic physics,” said NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind in a statement following the speed limiter proposal. “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."

Despite the fact that several jurisdictions have mandated speed limiters, there is limited data linking the addition of speed limiters to a corresponding drop in a jurisdiction’s truck crash fatalities. The most poignant example in the new U.S. proposal pulls from a March 2012 FMCSA study that analysed 20 U.S. fleets voluntarily activating speed limiters. Data from 15,000 crashes showed that trucks using speed limiters had a ratio of 1.6 crashes per 100 trucks per year, while trucks without speed limiters had a ratio of 2.9 crashes per 100 trucks per year.

According to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation's Road Safety Annual reports, there was a drop in the annual number of truck-related fatalities following the introduction of speed limiters in that province in 2009. The fatalities have remained steady at around 100 deaths per year since then. Prior to 2009, Ontario's annual truck fatalities showed greater fluctuation (including 170 deaths in 2007), although speed is not identified as a single contributing factor in the drop. 

  • Ontario limited the speed of large trucks to 105 kilometers per hour in July 2009.
  • In Australia, large trucks have been limited to 100 kilometers per hour since 1990, with a 90 kilometer per hour limit for multi-trailer road trains. 
  • Japan limited large trucks to 90 kilometers per hour in 2003.
  • The European Union has limited the speed of large trucks and buses under its jurisdiction to 100 kilometers per hour since 1994. 

The proposal also refers to Schneider National, which indicates that its trucks have had speed limiting devices set to 105 kilometers per hour since 1996. According to Schneider’s crash data involving its own fleet, vehicles without speed limiting devices accounted for 40% of the company’s serious collisions while driving 17% of the company’s total miles. 

The U.S. last addressed the speed limiter issue in 1991, when it determined that "combination trucks tended to travel at just over the posted speed limit." It concluded that because of the small number of high-speed crashes as compared to the overall number of crashes, there was not sufficient justification to require the application of speed limiting devices at that time. In response, NHTSA published “Commercial Motor Vehicle Speed Control Safety,” which raised the point that "virtually all crashes involve multiple contributing factors and that the elimination of any one factor—e.g., high speed—may or may not prevent the crash."

The proposal explores the positions of those in favor of speed limiters, and the organizations who oppose them. Of note is an American Trucking Associations (ATA) petition statement from 2006 submitted to the NHTSA. The ATA suggested: "A lack of focus on speed as a causal or significant contributing factor in crashes involving large trucks represents a significant gap in the federal government’s truck safety strategy. While much of the federal truck safety budget has focused on ensuring the safe condition of equipment, on driver fatigue, and on prevention of impaired driving, it is clear from the research that speeding is a more significant factor in crashes involving trucks than any of the factors that currently receive the largest proportion of agency attention and resources."

On the other side of the issue is the Owner–Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA). Its stance is that mandating speed limiting devices would not reduce the number of crashes involving heavy trucks. Similar to the country's 1991 findings, OOIDA continues to assert that there is no need to mandate speed limiting devices because high-speed crashes are small compared to the total number of truck crashes. Further, OOIDA suggests that mandating speed limiters would remove the current recruiting advantage for larger fleets. More simply, major trucking companies with speed-limited vehicles would not be forced to compete for drivers against independent trucking operations that have not limited their speeds.

The U.S. proposal also touches on comments from fleet CDW Transport, which suggest speed limiting devices should be required on passenger vehicles as well as commercial vehicles. "There were some comments stating that passenger vehicles cause the majority of the crashes between trucks and passenger vehicles. Some commenters stated that truck drivers will experience more fatigue with a [110 kilometer per hour] maximum speed, which could result in more crashes," the proposal states, adding that CDW notes weather and highway conditions as other significant factors in a crash.

In terms of the cost to mandate speed limiters, the proposal suggests it will be minimal. Most vehicles that would fall under the proposal are already equipped with electronic engine controls that include the capability to limit the speed of the vehicle, although the fleet or driver may not have these controls activated.

The proposal does, however, tout the potential fuel savings possible using speed limiters, not to mention the environmental benefits.

“There are significant safety benefits to this proposed rulemaking,” announced U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “In addition to saving lives, the projected fuel and emissions savings make this proposal a win for safety, energy conservation, and our environment." 

The public is encouraged to submit their comments on the proposed rule at www.regulations.gov.  

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