Speed Demons

| May 29, 2007

As trucking and safety groups form new alliances in the debate over speed governing, the real motives are hard to pinpoint. Is speed the real villain, or is safety a “Trojan horse” for another agenda?

“What is really behind the push for an across-the-board 68 mph limit on all big trucks?” So asks River Transport owner-operator Robert Harsell of Greenville, Va., in his submitted comments on the speed governor petitions before the U.S. Department of Transportation.

That question has been at the front of many owner-operators’ minds since the filing of two requests that heavy trucks be governed at 68 mph – one by the American Trucking Associations, one by 10 trucking fleets and Road Safe America, an Atlanta-based safety advocacy group. The proposals have produced some strange bedfellows as trucking and safety groups staked their positions.

While no one questions that the lower speeds would save fuel, few agree about their impact on productivity or on the major issue, safety. Also unclear is whether speed governing is a “Trojan horse” for other issues dear to carriers, as the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association claims.

The comment period ended March 27, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration expects to make an announcement by year’s end. That ruling could run the gamut from outright denial to a policy directive to a formal rulemaking, the agency says. However, the issue’s complexity, particularly its potential cost to truck manufacturers and shippers, would seem to dictate a rulemaking if accepted.

ATA wants tamperproof, manufacturer-set top speeds of 68 mph on new trucks only. Road Safe asks for a governed 68 mph on all tractors manufactured after model year 1990.

“These petitions are intended to be a Trojan horse for the true objectives of big trucking companies – doing away with current truck size and weight restrictions as well as increasing their importation of cheap, less qualified foreign drivers,” says Todd Spencer, Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association executive vice president. Universal governing also would protect the interests of carriers – mainly large ones – that now limit truck speeds but must compete with other carriers that offer drivers ungoverned trucks.

ATA Safety Vice President Dave Osiecki says OOIDA’s claim is a false “sound bite” that the organization “throws out there because it gets printed.” Osiecki says the speed-governor issue has nothing to do with productivity and is only about safety.

The push for higher truck weight goes back to at least 1999, when federal legislation was proposed that would mandate a recommendation to states to raise the maximum GVW from 80,000 pounds to 97,000 pounds on tractor-trailers with one extra trailer axle. The legislation was pushed by Americans for Safe and Efficient Transportation, a single-issue lobby with members including ATA, but never got out of committee.

ASET Director Jake Jacoby says that while the organization currently is in limbo, the weight issue is not.

In a lament on ASET’s website (aset-safety.org) in 2005, Jacoby says including state weight-increase pilot projects in that year’s highway reauthorization bill was actively pursued, but failed. Last year there was speculation that another trucking industry campaign for weight increases would accompany the next highway reauthorization in 2009.

But in March 2007, days before the comment period on the speed governor petitions ended, the provision surfaced in the Security and Fuel Efficiency (SAFE) Energy Act (S. 875), sponsored by U.S. Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho. Each received campaign contributions between 2002 and 2004 from ATA, FedEx and UPS, with Craig receiving a contribution from Yellow Corp. as well. At press time, the bill was being considered by the Senate Finance Committee.

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