Speed limiters: How fast is too fast?

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The FMCSA's plan to propose a rule around mandating speed limiters in 2023 set off a shockwave of comments, concerns, and downright outrage, but a key detail is missing from the proposal so far: What speed?

While many owner-operators and independents pride themselves on their ability to get the job done quickly and safely at whatever speed necessary within existing limits, valuing their operational freedom to do so as well, recent polling from Overdrive sister publication CCJ indicated that a majority of fleets already use speed limiters on their trucks at some setting.

Asked to indicate the speed, responses indicated a little more than a quarter of fleets (27.5%) didn't use speed limiters, with the remaining slightly less than three-quarters of speed-limited fleets fairly evenly split between speed settings 65 or below, 66-70, or somewhere above 70 mph. 

For drivers and owner-operators, concerns over speed limiter regulations rocketed the issue up to No. 5 on the list of top industry concerns compiled from the American Transportation Research Institute's 18th annual Top Industry Issues report, released Saturday. The speed-limiter issue debuted on the top 10 list of industry concerns at No. 9, underscoring the sharp reaction.

While owner-operators oppose speed limiters in large measure -- some look at highway safety data and call for greater education of or regulations for passenger traffic -- it's safe to wager most might admit being limited at 62 differs mightily from being limited at 72 or higher.

As of yet, there's no clear indication where FMCSA might draw the line.

What's somewhat clear is whether they intend to draw that line or not, given the agency's earlier year Notice of Intent to proceed with some kind of speed-limiter-use rulemaking.   

[Related: Speed limiters, others regs proposals slated for 2023]

Truckload Carriers Association Vice President of Government Affairs David Heller addressed the elephants in the room around what might be the next big regs shift in trucking at a webinar last Thursday. Heller spoke from Alexandria, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., where TCA routinely engages and consults with the regulators. While Heller didn't profess to have any inside knowledge, he helped frame the regulatory environment and discussed the likely ways a speed limiter regulation might come forward.

Firstly, Heller pointed to President Joe Biden's already lengthy legislative record as it relates to trucking. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and existing Trucking Action Plan already call for more scrutiny of brokers, a Truck Leasing Task Force, and a look at how a vehicle-miles-traveled tax may come to replace fuel taxes as vehicles go electric. 

Based on the infrastructure bill passed last year, Biden's National Roadway Safety Strategy includes "expectations of rulemaking" around automatic emergency braking (AEB), which TCA supports and has expected since April, said Heller. The strategy also mentions Lane Departure Warning systems regs, and "the one thing that was highly noted" in the NRSS was that it "did have a strong flavor of speed all throughout it," leading Heller to anticipate action on speed limiters in the near term. 

[Related: An argument for speed limiters in cars

"What made this proposal or notice of intent so interesting was it didn't reveal the speeds at which FMCSA was seeking to govern fleets," he said. Heller mentioned that with more than 15,000 comments collected, this was probably the second-most commented-on ANPRM in history, only behind one related to the hours of service.

But Heller urged drivers and industry watchers to look at the current realities of speed limiters in practice, and suggested that things likely won't be as blunt as simply setting a top line number on the dial. 

"We can't emphasize this enough," he said. "This is a long way from the days of yesteryear when speed limiters were set it and forget it. Speed-limiter technology has come so far. ... These are highly technical pieces of equipment that don't just address interstate travel. They can address speeds in school zones or side streets." 

The current generation of speed limiters allows for more "flexibility for drivers," he said. For instance, he gave the example of a carrier, if they so desired, being able to "allow for extra speed for their drivers when they need it, if they need to pass slower traffic."  

For more context, Heller mentioned the Cullum Owings Large Truck Safe Operating Speed Act, which called to limit speeds at 65 unless the truck had adaptive cruise control and AEB, in which case the trucks could travel at up to 70 mph. Further, Heller noted that nothing is yet certain, nothing yet settled.

TCA's own commentary to the FMCSA's request for information filed with their notice earlier this year endorsed the approach of the past legislation Heller mentioned. Signed by TCA President Jim Ward, the TCA filing noted the association "maintains that all class 8 and 7 trucks manufactured after 1992 should utilize secure and reliable devices that limit the maximum speed to 65 miles per hour, or 70 miles per hour if the vehicles are also equipped with adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking."

Heller, though, noted that "like you, we're waiting to see how speed shakes out in the next phase of this rulemaking," he said. "The agency does review every single comment that gets submitted," and given the 15,000 on file, Heller predicted it will be some time before they're all evaluated, as FMCSA Administration Robin Hutcheson herself told Overdrive recently.

"I am betting it won't be until Fall 2023 until we hear something else on this issue," Heller said, "whether it will be another supplementary notice or possibly a final rule from there on."  

Another look at how speed limiter regulations have already advanced into industry comes from the under-21 driver apprenticeship program, which did call for speed limiters, an automated-manual or automatic transmission; an active braking collision mitigation system; a forward-facing video event capture system and a driver-facing camera; and a governed speed of 65 miles per hour at the pedal and under adaptive cruise control as well as a raft of driver and carrier requirements. 

Heller contrasted CCJ's fleet-facing polling mentioned above to Overdrive's polling of owner-operators on the speed limiter mandate idea. Overdrive polling found 79% of respondents saying "no" to the idea, full stop. Heller said that with about 75% of fleets already limiting speed and 79% of owner-operators rejecting the idea, "it becomes an interesting dichotomy," he said. 

Those owner-operators opposed to any mandate have a variety of associations on their side in that dichotomy. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, of course, has steadfastly opposed mandating speed limiters for years, and did so further in their commentary to the federal docket with the FMCSA notice earlier this year. Further, National Association of Small Trucking Companies President David Owen, speaking at the association's annual conference last week the very day of Heller's webinar, also said he hopes the agency reverses course on speed limiters.

"It's my opinion that mandated speed limiters have the potential to eliminate in a month or two months all the goodwill that the industry has developed" in the general public as a knock-on effect, he said. "I'm hoping that wiser people prevail when it comes to that particular proposal." 

NASTC's official commentary to the federal speed-limiter docket reflected a similar view, given the withdrawal of the last attempt at a speed-limiter regulation. The association comment was aimed at casting "serious doubt on the revivification of a withdrawn regulation shown to be heavy-handed, of little safety consequence, more likely to risk safety instead of improve it, widely unpopular, economically damaging, and highly disruptive to a vital sector of our economy, our supply chains, and U.S. industrial and commercial success." --Todd Dills contributed to this report.

[Related: Owner-operators say not to speed limiter mandate]