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Speed: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS

HDT editors hit the road to report what truckers really face since the lifting of the national speed limit. Some drive, some ride with veteran pros. All tried to run the posted speed...or lower. Here are their personal accounts from across the country.

December 1996, TruckingInfo.com - Cover Story

by HDT staff

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It's late October on I-35 north of Denton, TX, and I've pegged my speed at 59 mph. In an hour I've counted 15 different cruisers and brown wrappers and they've got people pulled over left and right. None of them are big rigs, because the CB has alerted drivers to beware of this stretch. Other trucks are creeping by me and we are all treading very warily. The four-wheelers are not so observant.

So here is the first thing to note: Truckers pay closer attention to what's going on. And on I-35 north of Denton, that's a good idea, because the posted limits can be very confusing.

Coming out of Dallas the speed limit is posted 65 mph. It drops to 55 through Denton; then the limit rises to 70 for the car traffic. Truck speed limits are 60 unless posted lower. Except, it changes again at night or in poor weather, when the speeds are 5 mph lower.

Split speed limits make the situation worse. The trucks and cars are traveling at a 10-mph differential with maximum speeds of 60 and 70 mph respectively. Here in Texas, the merging section on the highway is short. Trucks need to pull to the left to make space for entering vehicles.

The four-wheelers, who were out in full force, were not particularly interested in letting the trucks into the left of the two-lane pavement. Sometimes I was forced to use the bulk of the truck to create a space —which created a few enemies.

Most truckers behaved well, driving with anticipation and making allowances for other vehicles. Sometimes this meant holding back to create an opening, timing a passing maneuver to inconvenience or delay other drivers as little as possible.
One thing regarding my fellow truckers caused me concern on this trip: Most of the truck traffic was going just a little faster than I and I'd flash each passing truck in as they were clear. And absolutely noone flashed me thanks.

Were they pissed at me for holding them up? A few gave me the wave as they passed and nobody gave me the finger, so I assume not. But there was not quite that level of courtesy I'm accustomed to.

It's not the first time I've crept along at the speed limit and had trucks pass by in a regular stream. In the past, we've done fuel economy runs around the country, many on a day's run from Ontario, CA, to Albuquerque, NM. On those outings we'll chug along at 55 as trucks blow by us like we we're going backwards, sometimes reaching speeds in the 80s. An inattentive driver at that speed could be heading for a serious rear-end accident, and we've all seen what happens in those situations.

At night, the danger is often compounded when lines of a half-dozen or more speeding trucks run in close formation. If one of them were to miscalculate, all would wind up in the resulting tangle. These situations I avoid by running along at a steady, fuel-efficient speed.

And the funny thing is, the same trucks blow by over and over again on a run, as they run from truck stop to truck stop.

On this Texas run, I saw the same thing happen. Several times trucks would get into the number one lane to come around me. They'd be pushing the 60-mph limit as hard as they could — even with the highway crawling with patrolmen — only to pull off at the next ramp headed for the truck stop.

Overall, though, it was a pleasant day's drive. And if truckers sometime do inexplicable things like run hard and then pull off at the next truck stop, they rarely do unexpected things like change lanes unannounced or unsafely, or cut you off, or slow down for no apparent reason — regular occurrences with four-wheelers. I feel safest in the company of other trucks — even trucks going faster than the legal limit.

And I feel a whole lot safer when all the traffic is traveling at about the same speed. In split-speed Texas, looking out for the other guy — especially the inexperienced non-professionals — is critical.

Los Angeles: The Land f Excess... Excess Speed

By Deborah Whistler, Managing Editor

We're on the road with one of trucking's most safety-conscious drivers, RJ Taylor, who for decades has thumped the truck safety book.

RJ founded Ol' Blue USA, United Safety Alliance Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to improving highway safety through tours and educational presentations throughout the country.

We're taking our ride in Ol' Blue, a 1952 vintage Kenworth. Its trailer is emblazoned with banners shouting the highway safety cause and logos of law enforcement support. Surely, this will gain us some respect.

Oh, I almost forgot...this is L.A.

We're heading out mid-morning to avoid rush hour traffic. Rush hour: That's when the speed limit everywhere in Southern California ranges between stop and crawl.

At this time of day, traffic is moving. And one thing is immediately clear; the speed differential isn't only between cars and trucks. The pace is irratic between all vehicles in all lanes. Upping the limit here was like waving the green flag to the fast lane crowd. Often it's a choose-your-lane-and-watchout free-for-all.
"CHP is having a real bad problem," says RJ. This was the focus of recent network news reports where CHPs had clocked vehicles traveling in excess of 100 mph — a lot of vehicles — despite $1,300 fines for such blatant disregard for safety. "These people figure they will not get caught," says RJ. "I believe there are actively 4,500 CHP officers for the entire state for all three shifts. There might be one officer to cover 20 miles of freeway. How is he going to catch 20 people speeding at the same time? They just sit on the overpass and think, which one do I pick?"

Even at these excessive speeds, safety often appears to be of little concern. Most drivers we encounter don't bother to signal before changing lanes — no matter what speed they're traveling.

Diamond Lanes have amplified this problem. Vehicles carrying two or more passengers can travel in a designated lane where traffic is generally moving at a steadier — and faster — pace. Motorists in the far left commuter lane invariably stay there as long as possible, then jet across three, sometimes four lanes of traffic to barely make their off-ramp.

Not everyone on the highway was a reckless maniac. But, at least on this day, kamikaze motorists are the rule, not the exception.

The most hair-raising encounter is with a red sedan that suddenly weaves into our lane without warning, then slams on its brakes. Taylor has to really stand on it to avoid running the small car over — we can't maneuver left because another semi is coming up fast in that lane.

The motorist continues to brake on and off, inexplicably, not noticing that he almost became the center of a semi sandwich.

That was another common hazard we observed: motorists often had their minds on just about anything else but what was going on around them. "If the cars held it at 65 and the trucks held it at 55, 10 mph isn't really that much of a difference. But we start talking 75 and 55 and we have a problem — we're talking a 20 mph difference and the guy's on a cell phone."

The slowpokes are just as big a danger. Often cars begin merging onto the freeway from an on-ramp, only to slow and brake in front of us. "If they'd learn when they're coming on the freeway to hit the throttle a little bit — that's what our long on-ramps are for, to build your speed up."

Another recurring problem — as we signal our intention to move into the right lane, autos speed up and cut us off. "I've got eight turn signals down the right side of this rig. And as soon as cars see the turn signal they speed up so that you can't change lanes. They're in such a hurry to get ahead of the truck. It's the American way... we've trained everybody to get there first."

And fastest. The freeways of L.A. are no place for the weak of spirit.

East Coast At 55: At The Mercy Of Ignorant Motorists

By Bette Garber, Contributing Editor

I'm ready for my ride in a truck running through New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. My driver for the day is Fred Lapp, an owner-operator leased to Landstar/Inway.

The New Jersey turnpike speed limit is 55 mph and that's what we are doing in the far right of three lanes.

Approaching the Exit 8 merge lane, Lapp sees a truck coming down the ramp. A quick check of his mirror shows a line of trucks on the left. In seconds we could be sharing the same piece of real estate with the merging truck. Lapp brakes, but he can't slow enough to prevent the merging truck from momentarily chewing the shoulder before gaining highway access ahead of us.

"This is where 55 mph is a hassle," Lapp observes. "We hit 35 mph before he got out and we were just about stopped. If somebody behind me wasn't watching, we would be rear-ended and it goes in the newspaper as a truck accident."

Cars and trucks pass us in a steady stream. "When you're traveling at 55 you're basically creating your own no-zone," Lapp explained.

Here come three trucks in single file thundering up the center at a good pace. They encounter a truck holding to the flow speed and, when it doesn't move over, the three-pack moves to the right to pass.

A four-wheeler speeds into view, zig-zagging lane to lane without signaling and prompting brake lights from more than one nervous motorist. Lapp watches it all and shakes his head.

Merging westbound on I-287 at 54 mph, we see a car rocketing up the outside fast lane. Before you can say, "Wow—how fast is it going?" the car whips across five lanes of traffic to the exit ramp.

A few miles further, another merging hair-raiser — this time with a car that can't quite get ahead of our truck before the merge point.

Boxed in by a just-merged truck ahead of us, Lapp decides to hold his ground. The car hesitates before backing off, nibbling the shoulder until we pass.
Slower speed worked to our benefit on U.S. 202 where the speed limit is 45 mph.

Plugging along at 43 mph, we caught every green light, but a red flatbed passing us repeatedly nailed the reds, seemingly waiting for us to catch up. "Every time he stops, he's wearing his brakes and burning fuel," Lapp noted.
A scary moment occurs near the Walt Whitman Bridge exit as we close in on a car going considerably slower in the right lane. We slow to 49 mph before we can get out and around the vehicle. Its driver is an elderly man, white-knuckling the wheel.

Merge lanes on I-95 around Philadelphia are unusually long. Here, cars can merge safely without curling a trucker's hair.

Further south, however, merges are considerably shorter and volume heavier, so Lapp takes the safer center ground. "The words "merge' and "yield' don't exist any more. It's like, "I'm on the on ramp, get out of my way.' " he said.
The stretch of I-95 coming into Wilmington (DE) is posted at 65 mph with accompanying signs warning, "Strictly Enforced." In reality, it's every vehicle for itself with zero enforcement — today, anyway.

North of Paulsboro (NJ) we watched as a fast-moving truck intimidated a car in the center lane. Clearly the truck driver was in a hurry and became unglued when the car wouldn't move out of his way. By losing his cool, he left witnesses with a lasting negative impression.

Final observations: No matter what number is on the speed limit sign, a large number of motorists see it not as a limit but as a starting-off point. Truckers are truly at the mercy of an ignorant, irresponsible driving public and the mark of a true professional is the ability to maintain a calm, rational perspective in the face of such madness.

View From A Four-Wheeler: At 55-MPH, `We're The Hazard'

By Patricia McCullough, Senior Editor

We left Portland, OR, just after 7 a.m. on Friday. Commuter traffic, heavy rain and intermittent construction held I-84 traffic to a lumbering pace until we cleared the suburbs.

Oregon has a split speed limit on interstates: 55 for trucks, 65 for everyone else. My husband set the cruise control at 57. We settled back to watch traffic.
We aren't exactly road wimps. Our pickup is a 1995 Ford F250 with a V8 turbo diesel engine. Even carrying a camper, there's plenty of power to run 65 mph on flatland and over hills.

But, on past trips, we found that we liked 55. Fuel economy was good, the truck didn't have to work hard, and we could enjoy the scenery. I was a little miffed when colleagues suggested that 10 miles below the posted speed limited was a bit dangerous. But it'll probably make me even crankier to admit they were right.

Our trip was Portland to Boise via I-84. Lots of highway and sagebrush. Plenty of room for our "experiment."

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