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Battle to Make Tractor-Trailers Safer: Speed v Tires

Tires rated only to 75 mph, but trucks often exceed that speed.

by on Mar.31, 2015

The tires used by tractor-trailers are only rated for 75 mph. If driven faster than that, they can rupture.

The nation’s big rigs are often exceeding the 75 mph speeds that their tires are designed to handle, often with disastrous results. The problems may expand as many states consider raising speed limits beyond 70 mph.

According to the Associated Press, 14 states, most of them west of the Mississippi River, now have speed limits of 75, 80, even 85 mph in part of Texas. While car tires are rated to handle speeds up 112 mph, truck tires haven’t been raised to the same performance level.

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In large measure, most trucks are limited to 65 or 70 mph by governors put in place by fleet owners. However, the many of the state transportation agencies approved the new highway speeds without consulting the tire makers or industry advocacy groups.

Safety advocates and tire experts say that habitually driving faster than a tire’s rated speed can generate excessive heat that damages the rubber, with potentially catastrophic results.

“It’s a recipe for disaster,” said James Perham, president of Extreme Transportation Corp., an automobile-hauling company near San Diego that filed a complaint with regulators about Michelin tires after seven blowouts caused an estimated $20,000 to $30,000 in damage to its rigs.

The disconnect between highway speed limits and safety standards was discovered by The Associated Press in a government document that detailed an investigation into truck tire failures.

Last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) closed an investigation into blowouts involving certain Michelin tires after determining that operators, not the tires, were at fault noting that exceeding the 75 mph rating was the most likely cause in all 16 complaints examined. The blowouts resulted in three crashes but no injuries.

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From 2009 through 2013, there were more than 14,000 fatal crashes involving heavy trucks and buses, killing almost 16,000 people in the U.S., according to NHTSA. The agency notes that tires were a factor in 198 of those crashes, accounting for 223 deaths.

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Forty people died in truck tire-related crashes in 2009, jumping to 52 in 2013, which is the latest year for available statistics. The issue at hand is: how does the problem get resolved? Improve the tires or enforce a lower speed. Not surprisingly, the lines were drawn pretty quickly.

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The American Trucking Associations, an industry group, opposes speed limits over 65 mph for trucks, and is pushing the government to require speed-limiting devices on trucks.

ATA spokesman Sean McNally provided a 2007 survey done by the group showing that 69% of trucking companies already had such devices on at least some of their rigs, with an average limit of 69 mph.

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