Guest column: The full story on speed limiters

by Barry E. Prentice

Transportation policy changes can affect everyone and have to be weighed carefully in terms of safety, security, environmental impact and economics. The lobby to impose mandatory speed governors on transport trucks in Ontario is leading to legislation that could have pervasive effects on the travelling public.

Speeding is dangerous driving behaviour, and transport trucks are involved in highway fatalities. However the linkage is more tenuous. Car drivers are more often responsible for accidents involving trucks than the professional driver in the cab.

For those who remember the famous TV show Cannonball, the star was a careful and safe driver, who did not speed or take unnecessary chances. Not every driver is Cannonball Mike Malone, but the stereotype of careful, professional truck operators is well-deserved.

The leading trucking companies in Canada have already installed electronic speed governors on their fleets and the trucks of owner/operators as a fuel-saving measure. The argument that mandatory speed governors increase safety is weak, but some environmental savings could be possible because lower fuel consumption equates to reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The net reduction in GHG emissions attributable to speed limiters assumes that the remainder of the traffic flow is not affected. If speed governors on trucks cause increased traffic congestion or force more speed adjustments by cars and light trucks, GHG emissions could increase. Accelerating and decelerating creates more emissions than travelling at a constant speed.

Bottlenecks are created and congestion results when vehicles travel at different speeds over the same network. The most acute problems would occur on two-lane roads, but four-lane divided highways would be affected, too. The impact of voluntary truck governors is already visible on busy corridors like Ontario’s Hwy. 400.

Passenger cars and delivery vehicles queue up behind tractor-trailers that are slowly grinding past one another. Movement around these mobile bottlenecks creates acceleration and deceleration of the non-truck traffic flow. The GHG emissions savings of tractor-trailers might be exceeded easily by the increased emissions of other vehicles on the road.

On two-lane roads, truck governors could pose increased safety risks and more GHG emissions. If trucks cannot achieve a safe passing speed, vehicles moving at less than the speed limit could force the trucks to operate at their speed, too. Imagine a conga line of transport trucks following a family hauling an RV on vacation. These impacts are likely to be magnified if the terrain is hilly or the road is winding where it is more difficult for passenger cars to overtake them.

If speed governors cannot be supported on safety or environmental grounds, then the only remaining argument is economic. The creation of a level playing field has intuitive appeal, but it depends on whether it improves competition and efficiency. If governors are mandated in Ontario and perhaps Quebec, can this regulation be extended to trucks coming from the US and neighbouring provinces?

The US could view such regulation as a non-tariff barrier to trade. In Canada the federal government has constitutional control over extra-provincial transport. If speed limiter regulation cannot be imposed on trucks from other jurisdictions, then regulated carriers could suffer a competitive disadvantage inside and outside their jurisdiction.

Individuals that own a highway tractor and contract with a larger trucking firm to haul loads on their behalf (owner/operators) view mandatory governors negatively.

A survey of 15,327 owner/operators in the US by the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) found that safety and congestion were four of their top five concerns: lack of passing speed; increased congestion; fear of being rear-ended; and more frequent passing by automobiles. The other major concern was income: the need to drive longer to get miles. The majority of the owner/operators are paid by the mile, and the next largest group is paid by the trip. Owner/operator earnings fall if it takes longer to complete the trip, unless their compensation is increased.

Large carriers that already have speed limiters may offer better pay or benefits, such that the economic trade-off is less important, but the OOIDA survey found that 81% of the O/Os would choose the nongoverned carriers if everything else was equal. The use of voluntary speed governors is a competitive disadvantage in a labour market of chronic driver shortage. This may explain the lack of unanimity on the issue within the trucking industry.

Better speed enforcement is possible and need not be prohibitively expensive. Programming a system to measure and record speed, location and distance could be devised, with a requirement for periodic reporting at weigh stations. Fines could be levied if the driver exceeds the maximum speeds more than five or 10% of the time. This would allow the drivers to obtain a safe passing speed without facilitating excess speeding behaviour.

The public debate prompted by the issue of mandatory governors on trucks is beneficial because speeding does cause accidents. The problem is that dividing the traffic flow into two distinct groups moving at different speeds causes congestion, raises safety issues and may increase GHG emissions. If speed limiters on trucks become mandatory, it is only a question of time before pressure will mount for mandatory speed governors on private automobiles and light trucks.

– Barry E. Prentice is a professor at the Transport Institute at the University of Manitoba.

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