Impromptu convoys

By Randy Grider
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For years, the Aussies have claimed title to “king of the road trains.” You’ve seen them – large rigs comprised of numerous trailers pushing the boundaries of physics as they snake and rumble across the Australian Outback.

With sturdy “roo bars” mounted over the front grills to take out any kangaroos that might hop in front of them, the iron giants demand the respect of other travelers who share the road with them.

In a few years, we may inadvertently create our own form of the road train. The difference is, ours will be single tractor-trailers forming a train that could stretch for miles, and we won’t be viewed by the motoring public with the same awe as our Down-Under cousins.

In the name of safety, the American Trucking Associations has petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require newly built large trucks to be equipped with tamper-resistant speed governors that would limit top speed at 68 mph.

Hobbling the country’s future truck fleet leaves us with some concerns, especially on rural interstates and other divided four-lane highways.

Picture trucks forced into packs by their equipment-controlled speed limiters. What happens when a truck is traveling 65 or 66 mph, either at the driver’s choice or because he or she has a heavy load that prohibits going 68 mph? Will the entire convoy be forced to drop to the slower truck’s speed, or will truckers creep past the slower truck, creating rolling roadblocks? “Elephant races” could become common if the faster trucks can’t get around the slower rig in a quick and safe fashion.

The proposal as it stands would also create nationwide split speed limits between trucks and four-wheelers. Given that most four-wheelers routinely exceed the posted speed limits (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s 2003 study of speeding), the speed variances between trucks and four-wheelers could be significant.

In ATA’s defense, it has publicly expressed support for lower speeds for the general motoring public as well.

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And while we applaud any effort to reduce accidents, truckers speeding or driving too fast for conditions are a factor in less than 4 percent of crashes, compared to 12 percent of four-wheeler drivers. According to the American Automobile Association, four-wheelers are at fault in more than two-thirds of all truck-related crashes involving passenger vehicles. ATA may be proactive in carrying the safety-speed torch, but truckers are still going to get burned if four-wheelers continue to contribute to the majority of accidents.

And finally, a mandate for speed limiters curbs states’ rights to determine what speeds are appropriate for commercial as well as general traffic on their respective highways. Many rural states currently have higher speed limits because of lower traffic volume.

We think that all drivers on our roadways should obey the laws and drive safely. Those who drive recklessly should be penalized. If drivers endanger the lives of others, they should lose their privileges to get behind the wheel. Education and enforcement are the keys to making roads safer.

We would like to see programs like Ticketing Aggressive Cars and Trucks, which was tested in Washington recently, be used nationwide. In addition to signage showing the proper way to drive around trucks and warning about being ticketed, troopers were put in 18-wheelers to spot reckless driving around trucks. The troopers called for patrol cars to stop offending four-wheelers and issue citations.

Truckers already feel as if they are falsely accused of being the bad guys on the road. While that is certainly not the intent of ATA’s proposal, the general public will take it that way. Most truckers earn the title of “professional driver” every day by driving safely, and they don’t need a governor to continue to do so.

Taking a lighthearted approach to the issue, one driver recently posted the following on a trucking message board: “I don’t care what they do, I’m not SPEEDING up for anybody!”

If everyone followed his lead, we could end the debate here.