Ontario mandated speed limiters for heavy trucks; crashes fell

Kenworth big rig (photo by Raymond Clarke Images via Flickr)

Kenworth big rig (photo by Raymond Clarke Images via Flickr)

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Here in America, there’s been plenty of talk about mandating speed-limiters on big-rigs. Supporters of such regulations point to Ontario, Canada, where, as NPR reports, the benefits of speed-limiters are beginning to pay off.

Auto fatalities and 18-wheelers 

On Friday, we wrote about U.S. traffic fatalities–specifically, about why the country’s fatality rate is so much higher than those of other developed nations. Because auto-related deaths are a public health issue, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention weighed in on the matter, identifying three of America’s underlying problems: failure to use seatbelts and other restraints, the frequency of drunk driving, and our tendency to speed.

Seatbelts and drunk driving aren’t especially controversial issues. Yes, there are some who believe they have the right to die in their cars if they want–and presumably, take others with them–but most sensible people understand that using seatbelts and not driving while hammered are in everyone’s best interest.

Speed, however, is a different matter. In fact, many people–particularly those who argue for higher speed limits–say that speed itself isn’t the problem, but rather differences in speed. In that view, when everyone’s zipping along at 80 miles an hour, there’s less chance of an accident happening than if most folks were driving at 80 and a few were put-putting along at 40. Makes sense, right?

But the issue of speed is more complex than that. Yes, speed differences can be dangerous, even fatal. But there’s no arguing that things still go wrong, even when everyone’s traveling at the same speed. And when that speed is high, there’s less opportunity for drivers to respond and more opportunity for injury.

That’s especially true when it comes to big rigs. 

Don’t misunderstand: we appreciate the men and women who drive 18-wheelers, schlepping from coast to coast with food, electronics, and many, many other things we use on a daily basis. But the trucks themselves are big and ungainly, slow to accelerate and slow to brake. At high speeds, the risks to big rigs (and other motorists in their vicinity) are much higher.

Oh, Canada

And thus, we come to Ontario, which has limited top speeds of big-rigs to 105 km (65 miles) per hour. Not just that, the province has insisted that any such vehicles traveling the roads in Ontario be equipped with speed-limiters that reduce the airflow to the vehicle’s engine when it hits 65 mph, preventing it from accelerating further.

Truckers chafed at the regulation and challenged it in court, but they lost their case. 

The public, however, has clearly benefited from the new law. Within one year of its implementation, big-rig accidents dropped 24 percent, and the likelihood of crashes involving trucks equipped with the devices fell by half.

That sounds pretty good, no? But there is a potential downside to automated transportation technology like this: it can cause drivers to become careless.

The NPR piece referenced above discusses similar technology used in airplanes. The writer notes that automation has made the skies much, much safer, but when accidents do happen, it’s most often because of forgetfulness. 

We may be seeing that sort of thing play out in the investigation of Joshua Brown’s death in a Tesla Model S, which occurred while he was using Autopilot. The details of that probe may not be published for months, but it’s entirely possible that–even though Tesla reminds owners to remain alert while using the semi-autonomous system–the driver became distracted, lulled into a false sense of security. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Brown should be blamed for the accident–in fact, it may well have been the fault of the big-rig driver who crossed his path. However, Tesla has admitted that the conditions of the incident exposed a flaw in Autopilot. Whether Mr. Brown could’ve potentially compensated in some way to mitigate that flaw remains to be seen.

When vehicles become fully autonomous, shielded from human intervention, maybe we won’t have to worry about such problems. But the transition to that allegedly glorious time will take many, many years. In the meantime, be vigilant.

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