The speed limiter proposal from DOT estimates a 60-mph setting will save 336 lives and prevent serious injuries to 372 people each year. Additionally, 6,950 minor injuries will be avoided annually. But, as in any analysis, nothing happens in a vacuum. Let’s look at an incident that occurred well into my quarter of a century as a truck driver. If a speed limiter had been installed on the truck I was operating, the results of this event most likely would have been catastrophic.
Traffic was unusually heavy on that day, even for the Dallas Metroplex, going into the afternoon commute. As I departed the Carrollton warehouse in my International tractor pulling a 51-ft. Kentucky trailer (GVW of 72,000 lbs.) onto the I-35E service road, I figured I’d head south for about 5 mi., then transition onto the I-635 loop headed east. I was to deliver in Memphis the following afternoon.
I had time, so I let the very heavy traffic flow around me—easing off, allowing others to pull in front and then backing off again to provide that cushion needed for a safe stopping distance. I traveled the 13 mi. to the I-635/I-30 interchange, transitioning to Interstate 30 East. Entering I-30, traffic was stop-and-go as cars and trucks merged onto the Interstate. It was nothing unusual, just trucks and cars trying to fit into a tight bottleneck. But once I got on the main highway, traffic was moving at the usual 65 mph for a 55-mph zone (common in Texas), still with near bumper-to-bumper traffic.
At mile marker 60, construction signs indicated the lanes narrowed in 2 mi. for construction work on the bridge that crossed Lake Ray Hubbard with a crossing distance of about 5 mi. As I entered the bridge, I was in the left lane, avoiding the speed-up and sudden slowdown of the traffic entering and exiting the Interstate leading up to the bridge. As I began to cross the bridge, the lanes narrowed to 10 ft., which gives a trucker running an 8 ½-ft.-wide vehicle a very slim area in which to maneuver.
Since there were no exits or entrances for the entire 5 mi. across the lake, the two lanes of traffic settled into an even flow for both lanes. I was traveling with an SUV behind me, another semi in front of me, a school bus filled with kids (all trying to get me to blow my air horn) to the right, and another semi in front of the school bus. We were all traveling between 50-55 mph. To my left was a concrete Jersey barrier.
For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a Jersey barrier is a modular wall used to separate lanes of traffic and to keep vehicles from veering into construction areas. A typical barrier stands 42 in. tall and is made of steel-reinforced concrete. One big problem with these barriers is the more they’re used in construction and the more the concrete is chipped away, the more the steel rebar tends to protrude from them.
We’re all just rolling along across this bridge: three semis, a school bus and an SUV. And there’s only a mile and a half left to go before we’re off the bridge and out of the construction zone. Suddenly, the trailer on the semi in front of me fishtails, and the driver tries to prevent the rear of the trailer from hitting the semi next to him within the narrow lanes. This causes his trailer to kiss the Jersey barrier to the left, damaging the barrier and exposing a piece of rebar.
I’ve got no place to go to avoid the steel spike that’s now just 40 ft. in front of me at mid-tire level. My left front steer tire strikes the rebar, letting loose a sound like a dynamite blast as 110 psi is blown out the side of the tire.
As I hear the sound, I look to my right and see the faces of the elementary school kids on their way home from school. I immediately push the accelerator to the floor to gain momentum so that centrifugal force will keep the left steer tire inflated and upright. I’ve got to keep from crashing at 50 mph into that Jersey barrier, because it’s designed to send me right back onto the highway and potentially side-swiping the school bus filled with youngsters.
I’ve got only a limited amount of time before the rest of this physics equation takes over and the front end of my truck lies down. (I’ll save the blowout driving tips for another time.) So, I have to keep increasing my speed—55 mph to 60 mph to 63 mph—until I can safely steer the rig to a stop, preferably off the bridge, either in the median or take the first exit to the right if I can pull ahead of the semi in front of the bus.
While I’m accelerating, I grab the CB mike and call out to the truck in front of me to accelerate, too, explaining that I’ve blown a steer tire and need to keep the wheel up until I clear the bridge. Then I call out to the semi in front of the school bus and ask him to slow down so I can clear the bus with my truck and get the kids out of danger. All this time, I’m praying that the whole thing stays together—that the front end doesn’t lie down, the truck remains maneuverable, and I can get as far away from the bus and kids as possible.
As luck would have it (and my prayers were answered), the semi in front of me had room to accelerate so I could maintain speed and keep the left front of my truck elevated. The semi in front of the school bus did its job of slowing down so I was able to clear the bus, pass and then ease into the right lane. (It’s far safer to take a vehicle with a blown steer tire off the road to the opposite side of the road than the side where the blown tire is located—less chance of a rollover.)
If I’d had a 60-mph speed limiter on this truck, I would have been held back from accelerating, and what was just a controllable steer tire blowout would more than likely have sent a busload of small children into Lake Ray Hubbard with a 72,000-lb. truck on top of it.
There are times a trucker needs to accelerate to stay out of harm’s way, whether it involves a steer tire blowout or a multitude of other challenges he/she faces on the road. A speed limiter requirement with 60-mph setting is not a good idea.