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Transportation Officials Hope Limiting Truck Speeds Will Reduce Deaths

Four decades after the National Transportation Safety Board recommended the change, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is considering limiting driving speeds for trucks that weigh more than 13 tons.

With the number of truck crashes continuing to rise, federal transportation officials are moving ahead with efforts to limit how fast tractor-trailers and other heavy trucks can traverse the nation's highways.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced Monday, Sept. 25, it would begin developing a rule requiring trucks weighing more than 26,000 pounds to install and use devices limiting their speeds to a maximum of 68 miles per hour. That's almost four decades after the National Transportation Safety Board first recommended such technology in 1995. Speed limiting devices are on the NTSB's current list of most wanted safety improvements.

"There seems to be some hope that we're finally going to see that," said Steve Owings, who co-founded Road Safe America after his son Cullum died in 2002 when a speeding truck smashed into his car that was stopped due to heavy traffic on Interstate 81 in Virginia.

Several trucking companies and organizations support speed limiters, including the Alliance for Driver Safety & Security, a group of the nation's largest truckers. About 98 percent of Trucking Alliance members' 62,000 trucks use the devices, said Steve Williams, CEO of Maverick USA and president of the group.

"Everybody needs to slow down and allowing FMCSA to pursue its rulemaking is the right thing to do," he said.

But the effort has run into trouble on Capitol Hill, where House Republican legislation funding transportation programs for the next 12 months would prevent federal agencies from adopting a new rule. And legislation to prevent the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration from acting has been introduced in both the House and Senate.

Also pushing back against any new rules is the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which spent $1.4 million on lobbying last year, behind only the $2.2 million spent by the American Trucking Associations.

"It's been proven time and time again traffic is safest when they're all moving the same speed," said Lewie Pugh, the association's executive vice president.

The new rule is a long time coming. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration first announced in March 2011 that they would consider requiring speed limiting devices in large trucks. They proposed a rule in August 2016.

Then nothing happened until April 2022, when FMCSA said it would move on its own to look at requiring speed limiting systems in trucks weighing more than 26,000 pounds.

That came after the U.S. Department of Transportation outlined a roadway safety strategy that January to reduce deaths and serious injuries in highway crashes. The strategy, funded in part with money from President Joe Biden's bipartisan infrastructure law, called for new technology, adjusted speed limits, changes in road design and signage, and improved crash responses from medical personnel.

It also came amid a double-digit percentage increase in deaths from truck crashes as motorists returned to the roads following the height of the pandemic. NHTSA statistics showed deaths from crashes involving large trucks rising 17 percent, from 4,965 in 2020 to 5,788 in 2021.

Deaths from truck crashes on Pennsylvania roads rose 22 percent during the same period, from 133 to 162. That was the 10th highest number of deaths among the 50 states.

Fatalities rose by another 10 percent during the first six months of 2022. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that there were 2,811 deaths from crashes involving trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds from January to June of 2022, compared with 2,559 during the same period in 2021. (Full-year 2022 numbers are not yet available.)

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said 20 percent of trucks involved in fatal crashes in 2019 were traveling between 70 and 85 miles per hour. And NTSB, in endorsing a rule requiring speed limiters, said speeding was the factor most often cited for drivers of large trucks in fatal crashes in 2019.

"There is no serious contention that speed limiters won't bring a lot of benefits," said Peter Kurdock, general counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of consumer, health, law enforcement, and insurance industry groups.

"These technologies reduce crashes and save lives at a time when truck crashes are still astoundingly high. We see so often a similar pattern: It is a truck that comes upon stopped traffic and is unable to stop. It's not like it's a mystery as to what can help bring down these horrific numbers."

Besides, he said, many new trucks already have these devices installed. They just need federal standards before they can turn them on.

Pam Biddle, whose son was killed in 2017 when a tractor-trailer going 75 miles per hour slammed into the car he was riding in, said such devices are long overdue.

"The heavier the truck and the faster the truck is going, the longer it will take for it to stop," said Ms. Biddle, a member of the board of the Truck Safety Coalition. "It's simple physics.

"Can someone have the courage to look me in the eye and explain why 80,000-pound semis must be allowed to continue to speed and slaughter unsuspecting roadway users with impunity when the technology needed to end this carnage is already available on large trucks?"

Opponents of a new rule say that forcing truckers to drive slower than other vehicles is dangerous.

"In rural states like Montana, a truck speed limiter will create additional speed differences between trucks and cars, which does not enhance the safety of our highways," said Duane Williams, CEO of the Montana Trucking Association, which endorsed the legislation. "Trucks should not be treated differently than cars by governing their speed."

But Montana already has one of the highest rates of fatal truck crashes, according to NHTSA statistics analyzed by the Truck Safety Coalition. In 2020, the state had 2.9 fatal crashes involving trucks per 100,000 in population, the fifth highest in the U.S.

And Shaun Kildare, senior director of research for Advocates, said there's not a big enough difference between truck and car speeds to hurt safety.

"The speed differentials compared to what they are operating at are nowhere near where they're going to be causing a concern," Mr. Kildare said.

Still, with the support of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, and other trucking and agriculture groups, lawmakers have tried to prevent federal agencies from even proposing a rule requiring speed limiters.

Mr. Pugh, whose organization claims 150,000 members, said most of them oppose speed limiters.

"We believe that the people who know the most about safety on highways are truckers," he said. "That's where we live and that's where we work. If they want to fix highway safety, they need to start listening to the men and women behind the wheel ... We're the reason they got the bills out there. We were the secret voice behind the curtain."

Legislation has been introduced in both chambers to block what U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R- Mont., called "overreaching, out-of-touch D.C. mandates" that "oftentimes make truckers' jobs harder and can even put their lives at risk." U.S. Rep. Josh Brecheen, R- Okla., introduced a similar measure in the House.

Separately, the Republican-led House Appropriations subcommittee that writes the annual transportation spending bill included a provision preventing the federal government from requiring speed limiters.

That drew criticism from Zach Cahalan, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition, which called the action "a callous indifference to the carnage caused by speeding semis."

Subcommittee chair Tom Cole, R- Okla., did not respond to requests for comment.

And while its Montana affiliate endorsed legislation blocking federal action on speed limiters, the American Trucking Associations said any legislation to address a yet-unfinished rule was premature.

"Before any specific rule is proposed — and the supporting safety data is published — opposing just the rulemaking process as this legislation does is premature," said Bill Sullivan, executive vice president of advocacy.

The trucking group supports a 65 miles per hour limit, or 70 miles per hour in trucks with automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control. Mr. Sullivan said the group will wait for the final rule before deciding whether to support or oppose it.

(c)2023 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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