The need for speed:

by Matthew Sylvain

TORONTO, Ont. – Truck engines are getting more powerful, highways are getting more crowded, and deadlines are getting tighter. So exactly what speed is considered safe?

At the same time, what makes the most sense in terms of how a heavy-duty vehicle performs in traffic while also making its delivery deadlines?

According to a group of trucking industry experts, it’s anybody’s guess.

Ontario Provincial Police traffic unit Sgt. Cam Woolley contends police reports show the vast majority of heavy trucks obey posted limits.

“Twenty per cent of trucks are driving too damn fast,” charges Muskoka Transport president Paul Hammond. “We have to slow that 20 per cent down, it’s time we did something about it.”

Canada Safety Council executive director Emile Therien explains that the perception is that all truckers are speeders. In fact, he says, the behavior of drivers of all vehicles appears to be remaining constant. Therien notes that, despite all the forces working to make highways trickier places to operate, roadway fatalities in Canada are dropping.

“I’ve always looked at the industry as having two types of drivers: truckers and professionals,” says Schneider National Carriers driver, and OTA Road Knight, Rick Warden. “Professionals don’t get attention, truckers do.”

He insists that speeding is really a function of the overall flow of the traffic. All road users may be exceeding a highway’s posted limit, but “then you’re driving down the road as one mass. That is the place to be.”

Warden adds the true problem is “speed differential,” which is more often caused by slow moving vehicles, and Woolley agrees.

In his area of operation, the Greater Toronto Area, the OPP officer says a tremendous amount of pressure is put on the trucks because traffic has doubled in the last 10 years, to 95 per cent roadway capacity. He notes too, that the size of the police force has remained unchanged.

“Rush hour is getting longer,” starting as early as 7 a.m. and dropping in congestion in early afternoon before climbing again on into the late evening hours.

As a result of the heavier traffic, trucks need the power to “get up to the normal speed of traffic” when merging from on-ramps.

Another factor in the equation, beyond speed differentials, is following distances, which can be very hard to keep safe when four-wheelers keep jumping into the dead-zone between two trucks running in line.

He also identified another factor in possible truck accidents, in which speed may be a factor: “bad highway design.”

“It is a large factor,” explains Warden. “Many of the highways are what I call unforgiving… lacking safe havens.”

Hammond advocates a stronger police presence on Canada’s roadways. He adds that pressure from shippers is contributing to the issue of truck speed.

“When the truck driver left isn’t his fault, but that is never brought up,” he says, adding that delays in loading need to be considered when deadlines are assigned.

Caterpillar regional manager Rob Johannsen says from the perspective of engine performance, running a truck at a higher speed will get a load to its destination a bit quicker, but it burns a lot more fuel. You might save 20 minutes on a trip from Windsor to Toronto, but it will come at a price, he adds.

“We find that a lot of people aren’t going through all the steps of using the technology,” that govern and track truck speeds, explains Johannsen.

Incentives to run slower, primarily in the form of fuel bonuses, are being implemented by a lot of carriers, Johannsen says. However, he adds that in his experience, as many programs are being discontinued as launched. n

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