Anyone who has spent any time at all traveling along out nation’s freeways regularly sees the remains of blown-out truck tires lying on the shoulder. It’s the sign of a safety issue that very few highway safety officials or state regulators even know about.
Those of a certain age may remember the oil crises of the 1970s that led to a federal speed limit of 55 miles-per-hour. It wasn’t especially popular with motorists or the trucking industry. Nonetheless, it saved lives as well as petroleum resources.
In the 1980s, as oil prices fell, that annoying speed limit was repealed – and as Congress started allowing the states to make their own rules again, those limits began rising across the country (primarily in Western states). Today, many states have speed limits of up to 75 miles per hour, and three – Texas, Wyoming and Utah – have raised that limit to 85. Other states, including Washington, Nevada and South Dakota, are considering raising their speed limits for trucks as well. In some states, big rigs are confined to lower speeds of 60-65 – but not all. Even then, drivers under pressure by the industry to meet tight schedules or bored by long stretches of desolate, empty country, too often ignore those speed limits.
The problem is that most truck tires were not designed for those speeds. It’s an issue that highway officials in those states allowing truckers to legally drive at excessive speeds have either ignored, or have been unaware of. The cost of that ignorance has been high; between the beginning of January 2009 to the end of 2013, there were more nearly 200 fatal accidents involving tractor-trailer rigs and large buses in which tires were a contributing factor. Two hundred-twenty three people lost their lives as a result. While there are a number of reasons that tires can fail (road debris, insufficient air and excessive weight), high speeds do cause premature wear and tear on the rubber.
Ironically, although trucking industry lobbyists are pressuring lawmakers to allow longer (if not heavier) trailers on the roads, at least one organization – the American Trucking Association (ATA) – supports limiting truck speeds to 65. The ATA has been pushing for a law that would require some type of device (such as a speed governor) that would prevent trucks from exceeding certain speeds. Some trucking companies have already voluntarily installed these devices. Such regulations have been considered in Congress over the years, but as usual, there has been plenty of discussion – and very little action. It may be years before any meaningful legislation action is taken.
The tire industry could step in by manufacturing tires rated for higher speeds – but as is usually the case with Corporate America, the primary concern is money, not lives. A spokesman for the Rubber Manufacturers Association says the cost of redesigning and upgrading equipment and facilities would exceed sales revenue.
In October of 2014, the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA) launched an investigation of Michelin, the leading manufacturer of truck tires. This investigation stemmed from an unusual number of complaints about tire failures. Part of this involved questioning drivers; half of them had placed undue stress on their tires by overloading or failing to properly inflate their tires. Many of these drivers were not even aware of these issues.
Of course, state highway officials say that truck drivers aren’t obligated to drive at the maximum speed limit.
For more information regarding trucking litigation, visit Levin Papantonio’s Truck Accident web page.