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FreightWaves Flashback: Return to national speed limit?

Schneider CEO Lofgren says federal truck regulators have misplaced priorities

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The many industries that make up the world of freight have undergone tremendous change over the past several decades. Each week, FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.

The following is an excerpt from the December 2006 edition of American Shipper (pages 64-65).

Law enforcement agencies should focus their attention on passenger vehicles because, contrary to public perception, the safety record of trucks continues to improve and autos are responsible for the vast majority of multi-vehicle crashes, the top executive of the largest U.S. truckload carrier told a House panel in September.

And within the trucking industry, enforcement should be similarly targeted at the small trucking company, where the risk of noncompliance with safety rules is highest, said Christopher Lofgren, Schneider National chief executive officer, in prepared testimony before the Transportation and Infrastructure highway, transit and pipeline subcommittee.

Truckers continue to be singled out for scrutiny even though 2004 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data show only 3.8% of total accidents and 8% of total fatal accidents involve a large truck, Lofgren said.

“That means that more than 97% of total accidents are caused by a noncommercial or small commercial driver. It is overwhelmingly clear that government safety policy should focus on those two segments,” Lofgren said.

“Because of their size and relative sophistication, the large fleets receive a disproportionate amount of regulation attention. That convenience is poor public policy because the large fleets are safe, given their scale and history of business success.

“It is important, therefore, to apply regulation evenly across the industry. That means the government must ensure that enforcement is possible among the small, hard-to-follow fleets before imposing new regulations,” he said.

About 10% of total trucking costs for large fleets can be attributed to safety investments, said Lofgren, whose own company has added 14 different safety technologies to its tractors since 1984 at a cost of $7,500 per unit. Only one of those technologies, anti-lock brakes, was required by law.

Green Bay, Wisconsin-based Schneider National is evaluating seven safety technologies including collision avoidance and lane departure warning systems.

The fact that safety technologies provide ancillary benefits, such as improved fuel efficiency and driver satisfaction, means that “market forces can be trusted to keep the industry safe,” Lofgren said.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is working with truck manufacturers to include promising on-board safety systems in their vehicles, Administrator John Hill said at a recent Transportation Table luncheon sponsored by Traffic World in Washington. These technologies include:

  • Stability control systems, which are about 40,000 trucks and show a 20% decrease in rollovers.
  • Automatic brake systems that throttle down the engine and apply the brakes.
  • Forward collision avoidance systems, which are installed in about 75,000 commercial vehicles and show a 21% reduction in rear-end collisions.
  • Adaptive cruise control linked to a forward warning system that can help slow down the truck.
  • Lane departure warning systems to prevent drifting, which are deployed in about 20,000 units, and can decrease rollovers by 24% and lane departure crashes by 23%.

But carriers are being penalized for voluntarily making investments in systems to improve safety and productivity because of the way the federal excise tax is structured. The burden is exacerbated by additional environmental and safety regulations, Lofgren complained.

The excise tax is 12.5% of a new vehicle’s purchase price, including the cost of extra systems. For years heavy-duty truck prices remained flat, even as vehicles improved and truckers received favorable trade-in rates, allowing them to offset the cost of regulatory compliance. But demand, low used-truck prices and high material costs began to push up the price of trucks in the late 1990s, and with it tax payments.

Lofgren’s biggest gripe is with federal emissions regulations that require new trucks in 2007 to have cleaner-burning engines, which add $18,500 to the five-year life cycle cost of an average truck.

“The industry is, in effect, taxed three times on any equipment regulation: once in the purchase price, once in the excise tax on the purchase price and once through increased operating cost of the equipment,” Lofgren testified.

He asked Congress to provide tax relief for federally mandated equipment costs. 

Lofgren also called for a return to a national speed limit, saying it was the most important thing that the federal government can do to improve highway safety.

When states decreased speed limits to 55 mph in 1974 there was a dramatic reduction in the accident rate and about 4,000 fewer fatalities. States that increased speed limits as allowed by Congress after 1987 experienced a 21% increase in highway fatalities.

Lofgren did not specify what the speed limit should be. But in an interview, Don Osterberg, Schneider’s vice president of safety and driver training, said he has recommended that the company advocate a 60 mph speed limit.

Reducing speed takes on added importance as the amount of highway miles traveled increases each year with little expansion of highway infrastructure to reduce congested lanes, safety experts note.

“We (the trucking industry) tout that we have been able to achieve a pretty good track record of continuous improvement in reducing fatalities, but we need a breakthrough reduction,” Osterberg said. “The correlation between speed and crash frequency and severity is irrefutable. If we slow all vehicles down, I am absolutely convinced that it will reduce crash rates and save lives.”

A national speed limit also makes sense because it will help reduce dependence on foreign oil and help the environment by reducing emissions, Osterberg added.

Downward changes in speed limits are likely to be unpopular with the motoring public, which tends to want the freedom to self-regulate its behavior. Osterberg said he is not under any illusion that politicians will make the issue a priority, but that strong leadership could convince people that reducing speed is in the national interest.

And mechanically governing the speed of trucks works in tandem with a national driving law “to make sure that they can’t excessively exceed the speed limit,” he said.

As for cracking down on driver violations by motorists, FMCSA has recently started a program that allows states to use up to 5% of their grant money for motor carrier enforcement efforts for noncommercial vehicle activities.

According to a Department of Transportation study of the actions that precipitate accidents involving cars and trucks, 57% are caused by motorists. A study by Virginia Tech showed a wider disparity, with truck drivers only at fault in 30% of fatal accidents.

Washington state is using the funds for an initiative in which troopers with video cameras ride along in trucks, record violations and radio ahead to a patrol car to make a traffic stop, Hill said.

The enforcement initiative is primarily used in high-crash corridors and provides strong evidence in court, Hill said. The program is intended to raise awareness about the dangerous driving habits of motorists around trucks and reduce crashes, he said.

The FMCSA is also developing an improved safety analysis system to identify unsafe carriers, Hill noted. Currently law enforcement agencies and shippers can use the agency’s online SafeStat system to get information on a carrier’s safety record and measure its safety fitness relative to the rest of the industry. Regulators would prefer statistics that show safety problems before, rather than after, accidents happen, he said.

Federal and state officers conduct about 3 million roadside inspections per year. But they are cursory and FMCSA wants to institute more comprehensive monitoring of carriers. Hill has proposed conducting 80,000 to 100,000 on-site compliance reviews per year, compared to the current level of 10,000 to 12,000 facility visits, and hopes to get funding for the expanded program in the next highway spending bill.

 Dive into FreightWaves’ archives:

FreightWaves Flashback: C-5 cargo plane proves mini-bridge by air is possible

FreightWaves Flashback: What NAFTA means for cross-border trade

FreightWaves Classics: Conrail divided between CSX and Norfolk Southern

Eric Kulisch, Air Cargo Editor

Eric is the Air Cargo Market Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at ekulisch@freightwaves.com

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