By G.Ray Gompf, CD
The winter of 2013/2014 has been particularly difficult for truck travel on all Canadian highways, particularly Ontario’s 401. Yes, the weather has been a challenge but as commercial drivers we are used to accepting challenges and performing exemplary, and really this winter hasn’t been as bad as many past winters although in the past decade it has stood out as a bad one.
That being said, I have never seen a winter where the highways have been closed due to multi vehicle crashes like this one. Sure we have social media that is helping to spread the word in ways that have never been available but our traditional media have always blasted out the news of major incidents. And in the past those major incidents have been few and far between. This season however, there has been a huge multi vehicle pile up twice a week in the same places along the highway where millions and millions of dollars of damage has been the result. While the weather may have been a contributing factor in each of these situations, the weather is NOT the only one.
A few years ago, the Ontario government rubber stamped a proposal to force all commercial trucks in Ontario to install speed limiters as a way to promote safety and improve fuel economy.
It’s hard to argue against the safety flag and it’s even more difficult to argue against better fuel economy in this world where global warming is mentioned at every turn of our life. Many of us did argue, not against safety or improved fuel economy, but against the real reasons for the implementation of the dangers of speed limiters.
With the results of this particular winter season, almost in the history books, maybe it’s time to review the government line presented at the time and take another serious look at the arguments against. The scientific solutions to questions not asked are not holding up in the reality of the real world.
Every time a computer takes over a human function, there is a price to pay in the devolution of skill level. Essentially, the speed limiter has removed the requirement for the highly skilled driver to even consider speed as an issue. The speed limiter is set virtually at the speed limit, certainly there isn’t a policeman in the world – except Ohio – that would stop a truck for five kliks over the limit, therefore the driver just drives the truck at the speed limiter limit – allowing the computer to control the vehicle.
Now, I’ll deal with the fuel economy issue before tackling the safety issue because I don’t want the fuel economy to be lost. The pundits said that by lowering the speed of trucks, and no there was not blatant speeding of trucks. Yes, some less skilled drivers thought that it was cool to “hammer down” and go but the overwhelming majority of highly skilled commercial drivers know how to and did operate the trucks with knowledge and skill to get the most out of the truck for the least cost. That’s the goal. Operate efficiently while running legal. It’s difficult because some of the rules are so asinine it boggles ones mind, but that’s a whole different story and worthy of more than 1,200 words all of it’s own. But the overwhelming majority of commercial drivers do follow the rules implicitly.
Now, with the speed limiter, the driver just runs “on the pin” all the time. There are still the same pressures that were always present but now there is this psychological additional pressure that has in the back of the driver’s mind that the truck will ONLY do 105 kilometres per hour and therefore he/she must do the 105 in order to get there on time. The driver was only doing 100 before but now with a speed limiter, there adds another dimension to the challenges of long distance travel.
So, now the drivers push the truck down the road “on the pin” and yes, sometimes even when the conditions aren’t ideal.
The other issue is the elephant race phenomenon. For much of the eastern half of the 401 the terrain is rolling hills. An “on the pin” driver will come upon a truck at the speed limit so he’ll pull out to pass but the truck won’t go over 105 so on the “downstroke” neither truck can gain much on the other and on the “upstroke”, neither will back off to allow either for a complete pass to take place or to pull back in behind. They go up the hill at ten or twenty kliks below the limit as a result.
Clearly, what happens is that the traffic platooning that naturally goes on, on such a highway, that truckers used to avoid like the plague, now forces trucks into those dangerous platoons and when sometimes goes wrong, it goes wrong in a big way. Trucks used to be able to avoid the platooning effect by skill and intent, but now with a computer being allowed to assume control of the speed, the trucks are now into the platoon in a big way and the results in crashes are magnified dramatically.
Changes to the hours of service rules have exacerbated the need to “keep going” when common sense would say “shut down’.
The facts are simple: The fuel economy has dropped as a result of the speed limiter. Pre limiter, 7.5 miles per gallon was a pretty average norm for summer travel; 6.9 for winter. Post limiter, not too many trucks are exceeding 5.5 miles per gallon. In addition to worse fuel economy, there is now the addition of DEF, a product that is supposed to clean the exhaust output, must be used at additional cost. The DEF tank is causing undue extra maintenance because the coolant lines going into the DEF tank to maintain fluidity of the DEF constantly leaks and downtime is increased. Again, that’s a story that could take another 1,200 words to make any sense.
Now, safety. As I said to a friend of mine recently, “don’t get me started” but let’s see what I can do in 200 words.
Pre limiter, the average speed of cars on the 401 was 140 kmph. The government couldn’t afford the policing costs to bring the actual speed down to somewhere close to the legal limit. Bring in the trucks. The trucks pretty much traveled at the legal limit but they had the ability to get around one another quickly, then resume their speed. The trucks didn’t block the highway and the fastest of cars didn’t have to slow down too much at all. The cars would crash sure, but usually wouldn’t take out trucks for the most part as a result. Now with trucks not being able to get out of the way quickly, the cars would bunch up in platoons behind the trucks until they cleared the lane ten kilometres down the road. When the lane cleared the cars would speed to get by and often would hit speeds well in excess of 160 kmph.
Now add to this a little inclement weather and a passing car, while under acceleration to resume natural speed and to overcome this feeling of being held up, often loose traction and take out the truck they are passing. Often then there are several trucks near the head of the wreck and twenty or more cars all banged up. If, there’s a lot of trucks on the road, there’s going to be many big trucks tied up in the wreck and deaths are going to be a part.
So why is this happening in the remainder of Canada? There are very few trucks in Canada that do not travel on Ontario highways. Therefore trucks across the country are required to be speed limiter controlled, therefore, what’s happening in Ontario so happens in the rest of the country.
And that’s been the real story of the winter of 2013/2014. It’s not a stellar safety message.