Speed Limiters will be No Match for Crafty Bus Drivers

By Dave Millhouser

Ferrying two Eagles west in the early 1980s, my boss and I approached a sign that said “5% grade next 10 miles.”

I downshifted, but Tom crested the pass and accelerated like a dive bomber (an apt metaphor, because in his previous career he was a test pilot).

Two miles later you could see smoke billowing from his coach, sitting on the gravel shoulder, brake drums glowing cherry red from trying to slow that jewel as it went over the highway version of a cliff. I asked him why he’d descend a 5-percent grade so rapidly. He said,

“I saw the sign and thought it meant a climb. I got a run at it.”

Powerful modern engines have rendered the old vehicular version of a roller coaster unnecessary, so, at first glance, FMCSA’s current push for speed-limiting devices on commercial vehicles makes sense.

Why allow heavy vehicles to travel at high rates of speed? In addition to safety concerns, speed wastes fuel, eats tires and wears components.

In fact, several large U.S. carriers already tie their vehicles down at 68 miles per hour or so, and in Europe, for a number of years, trucks and buses have been governed at 100 kilometers per hour. (100 kph sounds good, but we sophisticates who can speak European know that it’s actually 62 mph.)

On the other hand, I may be a bit two-faced on this one. Abraham Lincoln once said, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” So at least I’m in good company (hope he feels the same about me).

There are a ton of differences between driving conditions in Europe and North America. For a start, distances here are much greater. Lowering speeds may make sense in congested areas where trips are shorter. We even have speed limit signs that reflect that.

When trekking across areas of the West, where some of their signs are different (“Next Services 120 Miles,” for example), a bit more speed may be both safe and rational.

One major contributor to accidents is speed differential. Mixing slow buses and fast cars may not be a good idea.

Couple that with another major difference between the U.S. and Europe — we are no good at lane discipline. In most of Europe, the passing lane is strictly for, well, passing. Cruise there and you are ticketed.

For a variety of reasons, we tend to matriculate down the road in the fast lane, and passing is done whenever, and wherever, an opening occurs, in any lane.

Many professional drivers cruise the left lane because highway maintenance is so poor that the chopped up right lane beats them senseless. Others stay left so they can avoid merging motorists who sometimes harbor a death wish.

In other words, as long as commercial vehicles travel at about the same speed as traffic, no harm, no foul. Sprinkle slow-moving behemoths across all the lanes and you’ve created a slalom course for cars moving at the legal limit.

Do it at night and you make a moving maze. Chunk in the occasional failed taillight and voila, a demolition derby (a little more European lingo there).

There are legitimate arguments for both sides of this issue. Wouldn’t it be neat if regulators took a long look at this BEFORE promulgating a rule?

What has been the experience of major U.S. carriers who’ve governed vehicles at speeds lower than legal limits? Are they having fewer mishaps? Are their slow-moving vehicles causing accidents that don’t involve them directly?

What has been the economic impact? Has improved fuel economy covered the costs associated with needing more equipment and drivers to accomplish the same trips?

European highways tend to be better maintained than ours, and folks travel in the appropriate lanes, so it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. But it would be good to know how much benefit they’ve derived from the 100-kph limit.

Mechanically limiting speed in heavy vehicles might be a good idea — or a bad one. I’m a fence sitter (some would say schizophrenic), but wouldn’t it be great if they did a bang-up job (pun intended) of studying all the ramifications (another one) before making a decision?

Is there technology available, or on the horizon, that would be better than an arbitrary mechanically governed speed? Something based on GPS and local geography?

In the early 1970s a pair of us were tasked with changing the engine in a Flexible. The 671 Detroit fit nicely in the rented truck, but the coach was 1,800 miles away and the U-Haul was governed at 50 mph. No way were we gonna drive 1,800 miles at 50 mph.

Trust me, two guys clever enough to swap an engine can figure out how to override a governor. Want to bet that, if this rule turns ugly, we aren’t the only crafty guys around?

Dave Millhouser is a bus-industry marketing consultant and freelance writer. Contact him by email at Davemillhouser@gmail.com.

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