A mid-December notice of proposed rulemaking from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration aims to cut the required stopping distance for truck-tractors by up to 30 percent. The proposal would amend FMVSS 121 (the old so-called "antilock" standard).

The trucking industry knew the proposal was coming, but there are some surprises in it.

The document does not push for air disc brakes, as some expected. Nor does it push for electronically controlled braking systems, which were also anticipated in some circles.

Perhaps most surprising, at least to some observers including me, is word that NHTSA has not rushed the rewriting of 121 because it feels manufacturers are currently burdened enough with working to meet 2007 and 2010 emissions requirements. That's a much kinder, gentler NHTSA than it was when 121 was first instituted.

Some will remember those days, when the agency was run by the anti-trucking consumer advocate Joan Claybrook. Despite strong evidence – even some from law enforcement – that antilock technology was not ready for prime time, NHTSA rammed the rule through.

It was one of the nastiest battles in industry history, pitting fleets and manufacturers against the federal government, with antilock suppliers caught in the middle. It only ended when the U.S. Supreme Court found that NHTSA had written a specification standard – not a performance standard as was its mission. The rule was rescinded, to be rewritten.

There were a lot of bitter feelings for years to come. Supplier companies, who invested heavily in engineering and manufacturing, lost millions. Truck manufacturers, forced to take the case to the highest court, spent millions on engineering and legal fees. Some manufacturers and fleets whose antilock equipment was involved in accidents were sued.

It was sad and senseless that the people in power at the federal level took the adversarial approach to regulating how trucks are built. To them, apparently the industry was the enemy.

The new proposed rulemaking would reduce required stopping distance for a heavy truck to 248.5 feet from 60 mph. The current rule is 355 feet from that speed. The regulation would not require specified performance at higher speeds (some had expected the stopping requirement to go up to 75 mph, where only disc brakes could meet it). This indicates that "high performance" S-cam brakes will likely make the grade.

Tightening the stopping distance will probably take some re-engineering of front suspensions to strengthen them without sacrificing ride quality. As for electronically controlled braking systems, the current standard does not outlaw them, but requires dual air circuits, which would make the switch too costly. There are also reported concerns that the technology might not work well with older trailers.

NHTSA is giving the industry until April 14, 2006 to file comments on its proposal, and word is that final changes to 121 will likely not take effect for at least a couple of years.

No doubt there are still disagreements between industry and regulators – as there should be to resolve issues. But it's comforting these days to see the feds take a positive approach to working with us, instead of dictating to us.

Doug Condra


E-mail Doug Condra at dcondra@truckinginfo.com, or write PO Box W. Newport Beach, Calif. 92656.