Canadian truckers could soon be tied to an electronic leash that would prevent them from driving any faster than 65 mph — even as cars, vans and smaller vehicles zip by them at higher speeds.
The proposal, being examined by Canada's federal and provincial governments, is aimed in part at improving road safety, but one analyst warns it could actually end up making highways more dangerous.
"I see that as a great opportunity for accidents," said Barry Prentice, a professor and head of the Transport Institute at the University of Manitoba. "We'll have all these other yahoos trying to pass trucks left, right and center, especially on two-lane roads."
The federal and provincial governments are jointly studying the idea of requiring all large trucks to have their engine microchips permanently programmed not to exceed 65 miles per hour. One study, to be launched this fall, will look at whether these "speed limiters" would put Canada at an economic disadvantage with the United States, which has no plans to slow down trucks.
"There are some unknowns that need to be (addressed) before a decision is considered," Brian Orrbine, head of the motor carriers division of Transport Canada, said from Ottawa.
Ontario has already promised to make speed limiters mandatory, although with a provincial election this fall, it's not clear how quickly the province will be able to move. In Quebec, an all-party legislature committee has endorsed the idea.
The proposal originated with the Canadian Trucking Alliance, which represents the major transport companies, as a way to make driving safer while cutting down on emissions and fuel consumption.
The alliance says the average tractor-trailer could save about $7,575 in U.S. dollars in fuel each year by traveling at the lower speed. The group also says slower trucks have more chances to avoid accidents.
The Canada Safety Council, the Lung Association and others quickly backed the plan. But other industry groups say the limiters will make it hard for truckers to merge, pass or keep up with other vehicles, especially in provinces and states where speed limits are higher.
"You get out on any stretch of highway ... just try it and see what happens," said Joanne Ritchie, head of the Owner-Operator's Business Association of Canada, which represents independent truckers.
Truckers would have an especially hard time in states such as North Dakota, where the official speed limit is 75 mph and most cars travel faster, Ritchie said.
Prentice agrees, saying the result would be a battle between slow-moving trucks and fast-moving cars and vans trying to share the same road. Such a situation already exists in Montana, where the speed limit for over-the-road trucks is 10 mph slower than for cars.
If governments want to make the roads safer, Ritchie says, they should have police enforce existing speed limits on all vehicles.
Transport Canada is studying how speed limiters will affect road safety and whether they might have economic consequences, such as whether American truckers might avoid Canadian routes. Recommendations are expected next spring and federal and provincial transport ministers could make a decision as early as next fall.
The department is also examining the experience in Australia and other countries where speed limiters have been mandated. Studies have shown that roughly one in three limiters had been tampered with, allowing truckers to speed, Orrbine said.
Most provinces are waiting to see the results of the studies before making any promises like Ontario did.
"They've gone ahead on their own to do this. Manitoba's decision is to wait until the ... report has come forward," said Manitoba Transportation Minister Ron Lemieux. "You would think, at least in Canada, there should be a harmonized approach and we should at least work for that."