Speed bump

Truckers fight back against attempt to mandate speed limiters.

March-April 2023

Mark Schremmer


Attempts to require speed limiters on commercial trucks are not new. However, the next year will go a long way in deciding whether truckers will be subject to another mandate.

Last year, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issued an advance notice of supplemental proposed rulemaking that announced the agency’s intent to craft a proposal aimed at mandating speed limiters on heavy-duty trucks operating in interstate commerce.

Sometime in 2023, the agency is expected to release a proposal that would specify a speed and other details.

“FMCSA intends to issue a supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking that would, if adopted, impose speed limitations on certain commercial motor vehicles subject to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations,” the agency wrote in the 2022 notice. “The rulemaking would propose that motor carriers operating certain commercial motor vehicles, as defined in 49 CFR 390.5, in interstate commerce that are equipped with an engine control unit, capable of setting speed limits, be required to limit the commercial motor vehicle to a speed to be determined by the rulemaking and to maintain that limit for the service life of the vehicle.”

A mandate would apply to commercial motor vehicles with a gross vehicle weight of 26,001 pounds or more and may exempt trucks manufactured before 2003. A top speed was not determined in the advance notice, but previous proposals floated the possibilities of 60, 65 and 68 miles per hour.

As part of FMCSA’s justification for the mandate, FMCSA cited 2019 stats indicating that there were nearly 900 fatal crashes involving large trucks in posted speed limits of 70 miles or more.

Although FMCSA has more steps to complete before it would be able to issue a final rule, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and individual truck drivers haven’t been shy about voicing their opposition to a speed limiter mandate.

According to the Regulations.gov website, about 15,600 comments were submitted to the FMCSA in response to the advance notice. The turnout was dramatically larger than most FMCSA notices, and an overwhelming majority of the comments made the agency aware that truckers plan to fight it every step of the way.

“Small-business truck drivers strongly object to any speed limiter mandate for several other reasons based on their own experiences,” OOIDA wrote in its formal comments to the agency. “Speed limiters take control of the truck away from drivers, denying them the ability to avoid accidents and unsafe road/traffic conditions. Speed limiters increase driver stress and make drivers more fatigued because they must operate longer hours in order to complete the work expected of them, and they must also operate at the maximum allowed speed for more of those hours.”

Through the more than 15,000 comments, OOIDA, individual truckers and numerous other organizations have provided reasons why they believe a speed limiter mandate would cause more harm than good.

Added stress

Most truck drivers are paid by the mile. When you add in that truckers are limited to how many hours they can drive, forcing them to – in some instances – drive as much as 20 mph below the posted speed limit, speed limiters would effectively take money out of truckers’ pockets.

“A trucker’s day constantly changes,” OOIDA wrote. “Unexpected weather, traffic, accidents, delays in loading and unloading, and road construction are just some of the things truckers encounter through no fault of their own. These unpredictable delays will often cause drivers to miss scheduled loads and lose productivity. Vehicles that could not travel at the posted speed limit would just be another daily challenge for drivers, compounding delays and causing them to miss more trips. These missed loads add up to lost compensation and greater inefficiencies for commercial drivers. We encourage the administration to find solutions that would make driver compensation more equitable, not implement policies that would further suppress adequate pay.”

Independent owner-operators and small motor carriers are likely to be affected the most.

“This proposal would be especially harmful for small-business truckers and independent owner-operators,” OOIDA wrote. “Many owner-operators ‘spec’ their trucks to meet the operational needs of their business. Owner-operators

understand that all trucks operate at maximum efficiency, the ‘sweet spot,’ where the truck uses less fuel, has fewer maintenance problems, and lesser emissions based on the relationship between the transmission, gear ratios, and tire size. Establishing a speed limiter setting would restrict owner-operators’ flexibility to adjust their technical specs for the specific needs of their operations.”

The agency acknowledged the potential hardship to owner-operators when it attempted a speed limiter rulemaking in 2016.

“Although the agencies do not expect additional costs to the trucking industry as a whole in the near future from this rulemaking, small trucking companies, especially independent owner-operators, would be less profitable with speed limiting devices set,” the notice stated.

Already dealing with strict hours of service, long wait times at loading and unloading facilities and a lack of truck parking nationwide, many truck drivers say that speed limiters would add gas to the fire.

“This would make a bad situation worse, adding stress on the already stretched drivers,” Anna Whitmore wrote.

Conflicts with driver retention goals

The COVID-19 pandemic reminded everyone how important truck drivers are to the nation. With that in mind, the administration turned its attention to improving driver retention and eliminating supply chain inefficiencies.

The White House released a Trucking Action Plan aimed at improving both areas.

However, OOIDA says that the creation of a speed limiter mandate is in direct conflict with those goals.

“The White House, DOT, and FMCSA have all prioritized the need to turn trucking into a more viable and sustainable career for those entering the industry and the millions of Americans already making their living behind the wheel,” OOIDA wrote. “Advancing any speed limiter mandate would completely defeat those objectives. These goals can be accomplished through a more practical, less burdensome regulatory approach instead of another federal mandate that will punish small businesses.”

Many truck drivers told the agency that they will retire if speed limiters become mandatory.

“It is just plain unsafe,” Penny Robicheaux wrote. “There will be more wrecks due to cars speeding, on their cellphones, not to mention the road rage it will create. If you force this, I will hang up my keys, as I’m sure many other drivers will do. I refuse to risk my record being tarnished due to the dangers of what you are proposing here.”

Opponents also contend that speed limiters would increase problems with the supply chain as it would take longer to haul goods across the country.

“A speed limiter mandate will intensify ongoing supply chain disruptions,” OOIDA wrote. “Reducing the speed of trucks on many roads across the country will literally slow the movement of freight through the supply chain. At a time when businesses and families are having difficulties securing the supplies they need, this proposal would create additional challenges and delays. It would take trucks longer to deliver a load, which removes capacity from the industry. As a result, more trucks will be needed to deliver the same amount of freight in the same amount of time.”

Hundreds of truck drivers addressed concerns about how the mandate would hinder the supply chain.

“Speed limiters mandated in trucks would be a detriment to traffic flow and safety,” Heather Davenport wrote. “Drivers would be forced to continue driving when fatigued to try to make their deliveries on time. It would also cause an already struggling supply chain to be further disrupted due to delays caused by trucks to be stuck in long, slow moving lines of backed up trucks because they would be unable to pass slower moving trucks. This is bad for the trucking industry and the supply chain.”

Speed differentials

If most of the nation’s heavy-duty trucks are limited to no faster than 60 mph, for example, opponents argue that it will create increased traffic congestion and unsafe speed differentials between tractor-trailers and passenger vehicles.

A 2005 study conducted by Steven L. Johnson of the University of Arkansas found that differentiating speeds created more interactions between vehicles, leading to an increased crash risk. According to the study, the frequency of interactions by a vehicle traveling 10 mph below the posted speed limit was found to be 227% higher than a vehicle moving at traffic speed.

The fastest speed limit in the United States is 85 mph on a tollway outside of Austin, Texas. Portions of Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming all have road networks with speed limits of 80 mph.

Considering that passenger vehicles often push the posted speed limit by another 5 mph or more, the proposal could create a situation where cars and light-duty trucks are traveling 25-30 mph faster than commercial motor vehicles on the same highway.

The American Trucking Associations, which has taken different stances on speed limiters over the years, noted the concerns about speed differentials in its comments to FMCSA.

“ATA previously commented on the potential unintended consequences of speed differentials and reiterates that speed differentials between cars and trucks continue to be of considerable concern to motor carriers and drivers today,” the group wrote. “Speed differentials could result in increased aggressive, unsafe behavior by car drivers seeking to overtake slower vehicles and could increase the number of dangerous passing interactions on the highway. Speed differentials have increased significantly over the years as a result of higher posted speed limits in states.”

State rights

Citing concerns over speed differentials, many states have eliminated laws that made the posted speed limit for cars faster than for heavy-duty trucks.

“OOIDA has worked with various states for decades to eliminate state laws that established differential speed limits for trucks and other vehicles on state and federal highways,” the Association wrote. “OOIDA members have reported that operating on roads with split speed limits is dangerous, adding to driver stress and fatigue. This is because they need to be alert to more interactions with other vehicles and a constantly changing traffic dynamic. Currently, there are only eight states that implement speed differentials for heavy-duty trucks.”

In recent years, Texas, Illinois and Ohio have enacted legislation to eliminate speed differentials on interstates. Kansas, Maine and Virginia have also enacted legislation to reduce or eliminate speed differentials on their interstates and other roadways. A bill in the Indiana legislature would end a split speed limit that allows cars to drive 70 mph while heavy-duty trucks are limited to 65. If passed, the gap would be eliminated.

Opponents argue that speed limiters attempt to preempt a state’s ability to regulate speed limits.

“The Kansas Motor Carriers Association supports uniform speed limits for all motor vehicles and strict enforcement of the posted speed limit,” the group wrote. In addition, the state trucking group said that if speed limiters are mandated on trucks, “the maximum threshold for the speed limiter should correspond to the maximum speed limit set by the states.”

Rear-end collisions

Dramatic speed differentials combined with an ever-growing problem of distracted driving among passenger vehicles could lead to an increase in cars running into the back of tractor-trailers.

Rear-end collisions accounted for 18.3% of the fatalities involving large trucks in 2020, according to FMCSA’s Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts.

According to 2020 statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,142 people died in distracted driving crashes.

“Distracted driving is any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the stereo, entertainment or navigation system – anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving,” the NHTSA website states.

“Texting is the most alarming distraction. Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed. You cannot drive safely unless the task of driving has your full attention. Any nondriving activity you engage in is a potential distraction and increases your risk of crashing.”

If cars are legally allowed to go 20 mph faster than a truck, it doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine the driver of a passenger vehicle looking down at a text for a few seconds and then find himself running into the back of a trailer.

What’s next?

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s latest regulatory agenda sticks with June as the target for the release of a notice of proposed rulemaking.

Still, don’t be surprised if it’s later in the summer before the agency unveils a formal proposal. FMCSA Administrator Robin Hutcheson told Land Line in recent months that June is only an estimate, and that the agency is tasked with reading thousands of comments and evaluating costs, safety benefits and regulatory options before it can move forward.

What’s for sure is that OOIDA and numerous other organizations will continue to fight any attempts at a mandate.

“OOIDA vehemently opposes mandatory speed limiters because they are counterproductive to highway safety and present various operational challenges for professional truckers and owner-operators,” the Association wrote. LL

Mark Schremmer, senior editor, joined Land Line in 2015. An award-winning journalist and former assistant news editor at The Topeka Capital-Journal, he brings fresh ideas, solid reporting skills, and more than two decades of journalism experience to our staff.