Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Trucking Industry Seeks to Limit Speeds

A lobbying group for the largest U.S. trucking companies wants to force big-rig manufacturers to install devices that limit the speed of new vehicles to 68 miles per hour in a bid to reduce crashes and save lives.

But critics of the proposal put forth by American Trucking Associations on Tuesday see a veiled attempt to gain a competitive edge over independent drivers, and a public relations effort to curry favor with safety regulators.

The Alexandria, Va.-based lobbying association said it plans to formally petition federal officials on Friday. It will ask the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration "to limit the maximum speed of large trucks at the time of manufacture" and ask the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to "prohibit the tampering or adjustment of speed limiting devices to greater than 68 miles per hour."

There are 24 states where the speed limit for trucks on interstate highways is 70 miles per hour and higher.

Industry officials that are not affiliated with the American Trucking Associations said the group's proposal appears to be motivated by economics as much as by safety.

Because many of the country's largest trucking companies already have devices installed in their vehicles to limit drivers' speeds below 68 miles per hour, the trade group may be seeking the new rules as a way to remove an advantage among rivals who are free to drive faster, these officials said.

"Certain trucking companies would like to limit the productivity of their competitors," said Todd Spencer, executive vice president for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

Spencer said leveling the playing field on truck speeds may also be an issue in an industry that "doesn't pay very well" and is facing a driver shortage. "Many drivers will leave a company that has speed-reduced trucks for a company without them," he said.

And with some trucking companies interested in putting longer and heavier double- and triple-trailers on the road, "they may feel it would be easier to slide that by the public if they were to package it by saying that all these trucks are going to be driving slower now," Spencer said.

Joan Claybrook, the president of Public Citizen, said the trucking association's proposal might help improve truck driver safety, though there are other ways to go about it.

Because most drivers are paid by the mile and are only allowed to drive a limited number of hours each day, "they often are tempted to speed," Claybrook said. "The real issue is they should just pay drivers by the hour, then they wouldn't encourage them to speed."

Federal statistics released in August showed the number of fatalities from truck-involved crashes declined to 5,212 in 2005, down from 5,235 in 2004. The number of people injured in large truck crashes fell to 114,000, a decrease of 2,000 from the year before.

Leigh Strope, a spokeswoman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said the union's 12,000 truck drivers would not be affected by the proposed speed-limit rules. Under contracts signed in 2003 with companies such as USF Bestway, a unit of Yellow Roadway Corp., and ABF Freight System, a unit of Arkansas Best Corp., "we have an agreement that sets speed limits of 62 miles per hour on newer equipment and 60 miles per hour on older equipment," Strope said.

Some analysts said trucking companies might also be trying to improve the fuel efficiency of their fleets.

One major trucking manufacturer said it hadn't seen any specific speed-limit proposals, but that it was generally aware of the issue.

"Our basic position has been that we support and design our vehicles for safe and efficient operations," said Roy Wiley, a spokesman for Navistar International Corp., the parent company of International Truck and Engine. "We do offer speed limiting devices on all of our vehicles, and if a customer wants it, we put it on."

Tiffany Wlazlowski, a spokesman for the American Trucking Association, said the group would have no further comment on the issue before a news conference scheduled for Friday.

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