Topping out at 68 mph

Nov. 1, 2006
A group of nine truck carriers, American Trucking Assns. and a highway safety public interest group petitions FMCSA for mandatory speed limit governors

A group of nine truck carriers, the American Trucking Assns. and a highway safety public interest group have done something that hasn't been seen in Washington for a very long time: They compromised on an issue in order to move it forward.

The group has petitioned the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) for a mandatory speed limit of 68 mph on electronic governors in Class 7 and 8 trucks manufactured after 1990.

“A speed of 68 miles per hour was a compromise,” says Don Osterberg, vice president of safety & training for Schneider National. “The idea has been kicking around the industry for some time, and we've been kicking it around internally as well. But the catalyst was when I visited with Steve Owings in Atlanta. I saw that we had a lot of common objectives.”

Owings co-founded Road Safe America after his 22-year old son Cullum was killed, and his other son injured, when they tried to avoid a truck speeding toward them at 70 mph from the rear. The 70,000-lb. truck was on cruise control. On impact, the car spun 180 degrees as both vehicles left the road and Owings' son's car was pinned against a stone embankment.

Owings is quick to say that he isn't anti-truck and even though his son's death was the truck driver's fault, he has great sympathy for drivers. He believed, however, that speed was a major issue in crashes and that safety data bore that out. At first, he tried to persuade legislators to institute a 55 mph limit on governors to prevent similar crashes, but the industry's response was negative. “It wouldn't work, “ said Owings, who is a financial advisor. “I'm a businessman and I know how business works; I tried to find a common ground.” He adds: “The ATA's position was 68 mph, and I wanted their support.”

For Osterberg, the proposal makes senses on many levels. “It's safer, it saves fuel, it's good for the environment and it's a positive public image for the trucking industry.” If he had his way, however, the limit for governors would be 65 (that's where Schneider trucks max out), not 68, but he, too, had to compromise. “Sixty-five is safer than 68, but 68 is much safer than 75.” For Osterberg, it all about physics. “Seventy-five is 10.5% faster than 68, but a truck has 21.6% more kinetic energy [at that speed]. “At 65 we will reduce accident frequency and severity.”

He admits that 68 does have some positive aspects, such as narrowing the speed differential between some fast moving cars and slower moving trucks, a common cause of crashes. And 68 also allows trucks that are running the industry norm of 63 to 65 mph on their governors to have a little extra speed available to get out of a dangerous situation.

FMCSA is expected to study the issue and offer a rulemaking proposal, which will be open to public comment.

Osterberg knows that not all truck drivers or carriers will embrace this proposal because their business model, albeit flawed, is based on excessive speed. “If a company uses speed as a value proposition, they need to revisit their business plan.”

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