A highway slowdown has begun in response to high energy prices—and the big trucking companies are leading the way. Con-Way Freight, one of the nation's largest trucking firms with 8,500 rigs, has announced it is turning back the electronic speed limiters in its entire fleet from 65 miles per hour to 62 mph.
The company estimates that by keeping its drivers below that speed, it will save 3.2 million gallons of diesel fuel a year, while eliminating 72 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions—the equivalent of removing 7,300 automobiles from the nation's highways. And with diesel fuel at the current price of about $4 per gallon, Con-Way will be saving $12.8 million per year, a significant figure for a company that saw its operating income drop 27 percent last year to $235 million.
Now that fuel for the first time has surpassed labor as the most significant cost for many trucking companies, it's not surprising that they are taking steps to save. But here's the tricky part. They want all of us to do the same.
The American Trucking Associations is calling for a nationwide 65-mph speed limit—not only to save fuel but as a matter of safety. "It would prevent a differential of speeds between trucks and cars, where you have cars weaving in and out to get by trucks," says Clayton Boyce, spokesman for ATA. He says 77 percent of the ATA's member companies have electronic speed limiters set at 68 mph—with many of them, like Con-Way, now opting for even lower speeds.
It probably would take an act of Congress to set a 65-mph national speed limit, because, as we reported here, it was Congress that repealed the much lower 55-mph national limit that was credited in part for the short-lived reduction in national fuel demand in the 1970s.
Last week, the trucking association also renewed its call for a federal regulation that would require that newly manufactured trucks have electronic speed limiters installed that can be set no higher than 68 mph. No problem for the big trucking companies, most of which already are slowing down. But expect resistance from smaller, independent trucking owner-operators. In the Canadian province of Ontario, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association is opposing a move for a 65-mph speed limit, disputing the greenhouse gas and safety impact. "OOIDA officials believe that speed-limited trucks will be stuck in the right lane, cause problems with merging traffic, and result in 'elephant races' when trucks cannot pass one another," says the association's magazine, Land Line.
When I asked Boyce of the ATA about the competitive issues at play, he said, "Some independent owner-operators want to drive faster so they can make more miles in a day and earn more money. The large companies understand that they'll save money on insurance, engine wear, maintenance problems, and fuel that make up that difference in distance per day."
I'm sure that many of the independent drivers understand those economics as well, but it is worth pointing out that if the big trucking companies are under financial pressure because of record-high diesel fuel prices—which they most assuredly are—the squeeze is even greater on small businesses without major capital resources behind them. Roughly 500,000, or about 16 percent, of the nation's 3.1 million commercial drivers are independent owner-operators.
It's a tough issue that requires strong leadership, but when every 1-mph reduction in truck speed yields a 0.1-mpg increase in fuel efficiency, it's a problem that can't be ignored. A spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that the ATA's petition on speed limiters—which was filed back in October 2006 when diesel was about $2.50 a gallon—is still under review.