Steve and Susan Owings’ decade-long crusade to limit the speeds of tractor-trailers may end soon.
The Owingses are Buckhead residents and co-founders of Road Safe America, a Buckhead-based highway safety advocacy nonprofit. They started the organization in 2003 following the death of their son Cullum in a Dec. 1, 2002 wreck involving a big-rig on Interstate 81 in Virginia between Roanoke and Lexington.
Cullum Owings, 22, was driving himself and his younger brother Pierce, 18, back to Washington and Lee University, where they were both students, on the last day of the Thanksgiving holidays, annually the busiest traffic day of the year. Pierce Owings suffered minor injuries in the crash.
“(Cullum) was in stopped traffic … He came to a parking lot situation literally a few miles from college in Virginia, and we don’t know what caused the traffic jam, but tragically the only vehicle that did not stop safely,” Steve Owings said. “It was driven by a driver well over the speed limit who was using cruise control. For whatever reason, distraction or fatigue, he didn’t touch the brakes until he was 100 feet of the car.”
Since then the Owingses have advocated for safer highways. In 2006 they petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation to adopt a new rule to require all trucks over 26,000 pounds to use a speed limiter. Currently the new rule, as proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a division of the U.S. DOT, only applies to new tractor-trailers.
“We were the lead filer for this rule along with a handful of household name trucking companies: Schneider, J.B. Hunt and Maverick - 10 companies total,” Steve Owings said. “Three weeks after we filed our request in 2006, the American Trucking Associations filed a similar request. An important point is we have the support of the leadership of the trucking industry as well as all safety advocates on this.”
The 60-day comment period on the proposed rule started Sept. 7 and was supposed to end Nov. 7, but it has been extended to Dec. 7, Steve Owings said. He is encouraging those who believe the speed limiter rule should apply to all tractor-trailers to post comments on the website www.regulations.gov. As of Nov. 3, there were 3,475 comments on the website. With the proposed rule the U.S. DOT is asking if the speed limiter should be set at 60, 65 or 68 mph. Steve Owings said Road Safe America supports “60 (mph) because according to their own data, that will save the most lives.”
Once the public comment period ends, the U.S. DOT will consider those comments in making the final rule. Steve Owings thanked U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson plus U.S. Reps. Buddy Carter, John Lewis, Barry Loudermilk, Tom Price and Rob Woodall, all representatives of Georgia, for pushing to require all tractor-trailers over 26,000 pounds to use speed limiters.
“They’ve really gotten our message and Georgia is No. 4 in fatalities crashes involving big rigs,” he said. “Johnny has an amendment that (earlier this year) passed (in the Senate) that is part of an appropriations bill to be approved between now and the end of the year. It says a final rule (on speed limiters) must be issued within six months of the bill’s approval.”
Steve Owings said there is a plethora of data that shows speed limiters will make America’s highways safer, including the fact that since the 1990s, all tractor-trailers that size had speed limiters built into their systems and it would cost only $20 per truck to activate them.
“That’s what is so absurd about this. … It’s like looking at seatbelts and saying they save lives but let’s wait 10 years to require them. It’s totally outrageous,” he said. “Obviously we want this rule to apply to existing trucks, not just new ones.”
Steve Owings said the U.S. is the only major country in the world to not require speed limiters, adding the United Kingdom adopted the speed limiter rule as early as 1988.
There are over 4,000 fatalities nationwide from crashes involving big rigs, and there are more than 1,000 big-rig crashes each day. In Georgia in 2014, the last year crash data was available, there were 97 multi-vehicle fatal wreck involving large trucks.
“Since 2009, the number of fatalities in these crashes is up 20 percent,” Steve Owings said. “The number of injuries is up 50 percent. And the number of crashes is up 44 percent, through 2014. So these numbers are going in the wrong direction. Here’s a common-sense rule where the research is clear.
“The (U.S.) DOT did a study using speed limiters on big trucks and compared the control group of thousands with them set and without them set and what they concluded was the ones without them set are double the rate of highway speed crashes. A very important additional point is we’re not anti-trucking and anti-truck driver. I’m a business guy (he works as a financial advisor). I get it that trucking is a backbone service to the whole economy. The approach we have taken is to propose things along with leaders in the industry. This will save tons of money for the companies. According to the American Trucking Associations, 70 percent of these trucks have the speeds voluntarily set.
“(Speed limiters) save all the expenses involved in liabilities but they also save a ton of money on fuel and maintenance costs with tires and breaks because they last longer at lower speeds.”
In July the Canadian province of Ontario released a report stating the number of fatalities involving big-rig crashes dropped 24 percent in the first year of its speed limiter rule, which caps trucks’ speed at 65 mph.
While Road Safe and the American Trucking Associations are for the speed limiter rule, the Owner Operator Independent Driver Association is against it, arguing it will create speed differentials that will lead to more crashes.
“Highways are safest when all vehicles travel at the same relative speed,” Todd Spencer, that association’s executive vice president, said in an Aug. 26 news release regarding the proposed new rule. “This wisdom has always been true and has not ever changed.”
The association also argues speed limiters can take control out of the hands of drivers because there are many situations that require drivers to accelerate in order to avoid danger.
Steve Owings said that organization’s claims do not hold water.
“On the speed differential argument, if that were a legitimate risk factor, we would see horrendous crashes on the Autobahn in Germany because for decades the trucks over there have been speed limited 56 mph,” he said of the famous highway that has no speed limit for other vehicles.
When asked why it’s taken 10 years to get this far with the proposed rule, Steve Owings, who said he has done all he can to get his message out to the public about the proposed rule through media interviews and email blasts, was exasperated.
“I can see why people are upset with the government,” he said. “It’s so common sense and (it is frustrating) to see it take so much effort and time from not just us to cajole the government into doing what their fundamental purpose, which is providing safety to its citizens. It’s shameful that it’s taken so long. I can assure you it’s not for a lack of effort.”