No need for speed

February 25, 2007

Large trucks are a growing presence on America's highways -- and a growing cause of traffic fatalities. Between 1995 and 2005, the number of large trucks involved in fatal crashes grew by more than 10 percent. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 5,212 people died in truck-involved crashes in 2005 and speeding was a common factor.

What if a switch could be flipped preventing tractor-trailers from ever speeding on the nation's interstate highways? As improbable as that sounds, it can essentially be done. Since 1990, new trucks have been built with an internal computer chip -- called a speed governor -- that can be adjusted to prevent trucks from traveling faster than a pre-determined top speed.

A proposal under review by the U.S. Department of Transportation would require all speed governors on trucks weighing more than 13 tons to be set no higher than 68 miles per hour. It was filed by the safety advocacy group, Road Safe America, and a coalition of 10 major trucking companies.

The plan makes a lot of sense. There's no good reason for trucks to travel any faster, and it's not uncommon for large carriers to restrict vehicles in their own fleets anyway. Trucks that travel at reasonable speeds are not only safer but more fuel efficient and cheaper to operate.

Of course, limiting truck speed is no panacea. Computer chips can be tampered with (a disabled speed governor would be made a serious safety violation, however). But more important, there are many other issues in truck-involved accidents, from driver fatigue to equipment failure. In fact, truck crashes are more likely to be caused by someone else -- a car slamming into the side of a big rig, for instance -- than by a truck driver.

Still, excessive speed is a factor in about one in five fatal truck crashes. It's not because trucks speed more often than cars (they don't) but because the consequences of an out-of-control, 80,000-pound truck are so much worse than with a 3,000-pound car. Enlightened leaders within the trucking industry support putting the brakes on big rigs; federal regulators ought to as well.

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