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GOP Pols Want to Ban Speed Limiter Requirements on Deadly Big Rigs

High-speed truck crashes are soaring – so why are lawmakers fighting against long-proven technology to stop them?

Advocates are raising the alarm about a proposed new law that would prevent federal safety regulators from slowing down the largest trucks on the road — despite huge increases in speed-related truck-involved fatal crashes.

Last week, a coalition of safety and trucking groups led by the Truck Safety Association released a statement warning Americans about the Republican-led Deregulating Restrictions on Interstate Vehicles and Eighteen-Wheelers (DRIVE) Act, which would block the U.S. DOT's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration from issuing "any rule or regulation to require [trucks] in interstate commerce to be equipped with a speed limiting device."

The bill is reigniting a decades-old debate about the life-saving technology, the most common forms of which simply cap the top speed at which big rigs can travel and makes their drivers more likely to brake in time to avoid a deadly high-speed crash. Required on commercial vehicles in Europe for more than 30 years, speed limiters have been credited with drastically decreasing speed-related collisions among commercial vehicle drivers, with one Ontario program even reporting a whopping 76-percent decline in at-fault, speeding-related crashes.

That same technology, though, has proved controversial among stateside trucking groups, even as the percentage of fatal truck crashes involving speeding skyrocketed 50 percent since 2009 — and truck crashes overall have risen 71 percent over the same period. As many larger carriers voluntarily embrace speed limiters as a no-brainer safety solution that also saves them money on fuel efficiency — the Trucking Alliance says 98 percent of their trucks already use the them, and that most rigs can still travel 65 or 70 miles per hour, depending on whether they're outfitted with other safety tech — smaller operators have fought a regulatory mandate tooth and nail since US DOT first floated the idea in 2011.

"I haven’t heard any compelling argument for why speed limiters should not be used," said Zach Cahalan, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition. "For the victims and survivors of large truck crashes, [opposing speed limiters] doesn't make sense in any way, shape or form. We have the tech to prevent these types of crashes; the idea that we would just ignore them and allow needless death and injuries to continue is just indefensible." 

The most common arguments against speed limiters, Cahalan says, are tied up in the supposed right of states to decide what speeds are safe for their unique roads — an argument he questions, since the laws of physics that make fast crashes more forceful and thereby deadly don't change when drivers cross state lines. He also dismisses "speculative and hypothetical" idea that speed limiters could make roads more dangerous by exaggerating the "speed differential" between commercial and civilian drivers, encouraging the latter to perform risky passing maneuvers; a comprehensive 2018 literature review noted that "multiple studies have found different speed limits for trucks and cars did not impact collision risk," including research in the U.S.

It's a structural problem

The real reason why small operators are fighting safety tech so fiercely, Cahalan believes, may have more to do with an endless "race to the bottom" in the shipping industry following the rise of e-commerce, which increasingly promises consumers cheap, lightning-fast deliveries that carriers can't complete unless they speed — endangering other road users and stretching their workforce to the limits in the process.

"The way that folks remain competitive is to accept the lowest costs they can manage — which results in sacrifices in safety, maintenance, and training," Cahalan stresses. "And that's disproportionately effecting your smaller owner-operators, because they have less capital to invest in those sorts of things."

Instead of arguing that speed limiters are bad for small business, Cahalan says America needs to question why companies are allowing drivers to reach speeds they know are a factor in thousands of deaths a year — and why that risk pencils out better than simply slowing down drivers. That may start with increasing the minimum amount of insurance commercial motor vehicles are required to carry, which was set at just $750,000 per crash way back in 1980 and hasn't been increased since, even to adjust for inflation.

Today, the real costs of the average large truck collision are nearly $5 million, and much of that is paid by victims and tax payers — leaving operators and their insurers little financial incentive to make fleets safer.

That state of affairs, of course, isn't particularly great for big rig operators themselves. Crash fatalities are the primary reason why "truck driver" consistently ranks among the most dangerous jobs in America by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but because most truck drivers are paid by the mile, they often can't afford to slow down and travel at safer speeds to protect themselves.

"Pay-by-mile means that if the roads aren’t moving, you aren’t earning," Cahalan says. "It isn't fair; if there’s a wreck, if there's a maintenance issue, if your rig is out of service, if you [run into slowdowns] loading and unloading — that happens all the time — that can cost you money. Rethinking that [pay] structure, whether it’s hourly pay, pay for job completed within a given time frame, paying overtime, whatever it is, might help eliminate the perverse incentive to speed to make up for unearned time."

If the DRIVE Act makes it through negotiations over the upcoming federal spending bill — and the House version already includes it — Cahalan fears it will stop the conversation about more advanced forms of speed limiting tech before it starts, like Intelligent Speed Assist, which senses the surrounding speed limit and slows the truck below it.

"We’re literally having a discussion about using a life saving-tech that’s over 20 years old," he said. "I understand why so many operators are up in arms about not being allowed to speed. But to say ‘for us to be successful, we have to speed’ — that’s unacceptable when thousands of people are needlessly dying."

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