Last summer, five Georgia nurses lost their lives in a car crash on Interstate 16. All were young female students at Georgia Southern University, on their way to a Savannah’s St. Joseph’s Hospital for their final clinical rotation of the school year.
According to reports, they were making their way slowly through stop-and-go traffic caused by an earlier accident on I-16 when a tractor-trailer slammed into their car from behind. The truck, moving at a speed well above the highway limit, took out several additional vehicles in a chain-reaction crash before colliding with a tanker truck that burst into flames.
In response to the outcry around this tragedy, Representative Ron Stephens penned House Bill 499. This bill would impose tougher penalties on commercial trucks that overstep the speed limits on Georgia’s interstate highways.
The “Super Speeder Law”
Currently, the law imposes additional fines for vehicles that are caught going 20 mph over the speed limit. This law, in place for six years, penalizes drivers that are caught going more than 85 mph on interstates or more than 75 mph on two-lane roads by tacking an extra $200 on top of the normal speeding citation. This is known as the “Super Speeder Law.”
However, if Rep. Stephens’ bill is passed, the Super Speeder trigger would be lowered to 10 mph for 100,000-pound commercial vehicles. (It would remain the same for cars, vans, smaller trucks and noncommercial buses.)
Last February, while testifying before the House of Representatives Motor Vehicle Committee, Rep. Stephens stated his position in no uncertain terms:
“This is a very small opportunity for us to take out the very heavy trucks,” he told the House. He went on to explain that a highway accident between two cars is a very different thing from a crash involving a commercial truck.
“When they’re involved in an accident, they have a tendency to squash you like a bug,” he said.
While his point may have had some validity, especially in light of the circumstances of the Interstate 16 crash, his language painted a picture that many professional truck drivers found objectionable.
“A Dichotomous System”
In response to Rep. Stephens, Jay Morgan, a lobbyist with the Georgia Motor Trucking Association, took the floor to point out that most truck/car crashes are caused not by the truck driver, but by the car (roughly seven out of ten, according to statistics).
He added the adage that every student driver is taught and studies continue to confirm: that the safest conditions for traffic are when all vehicles, regardless of size, are moving at about the same speed.
Morgan argued that a situation in which a trained, professional driver is penalized extra for going 10 miles over the speed limit, while nonprofessional drivers—or those behind the wheel of vehicles even slightly smaller—can get away with speeds up to 20 miles over the limit, is a “dichotomous system” that is not only unjust, but also bound to create safety hazards.
Furthermore, as a recent editorial in the Savannah Morning News pointed out, “speed isn’t the only factor in these horrific crashes.”
In fact, last year’s I-16 crash was primarily the fault of a truck driver who admitted to texting on his phone as his truck rapidly approached a multi-vehicle pileup caused by an earlier collision on the same stretch of highway. As a result, the driver did not hit the brakes or even swerve to avoid collision.
Following the Money
It should be noted that the bill provides for revenue raised by the increased Super Speeder penalty should be donated to state trauma centers. As a result, lobbyists associated with these hospitals attended the hearing in support of the bill.
In turn, some within the professional trucking are of the opinion that Rep. Stephens’ proposed law has more to do with raising money than punishing speeders.
Interestingly, the Super Speeder law has been a source of contention in Georgia since it was introduced. Much of the conflict has to do with how the fine is collected. Those who pay their citations for speeding are sent an additional “Super Speeder” ticket, sometimes months later.
The Associated Press reports that though the state has issued more than 116,000 Super Speeder citations (totaling upward of $25 million) since 2009, they have to date only collected about 41% of those funds.
This existing conflict leads some to believe that the increase in fines for truckers would hurt the state’s trucking workforce while doing little to fix the actual problem.
Lives and Livelihoods in the Balance
Dan Matthews, a veteran truck driver who now works as a safety trainer for YRC Freight, argued that the increased penalty would do more harm than good to the state of Georgia, whose economy depends greatly on the trucking industry.
Matthews pointed out that most commercial trucks have engines designed to resist accelerating about 65 mph. The only time their vehicles are even capable of going above that speed is when they are moving downhill in an attempt to keep momentum to get up the next hill. Preventing this downhill acceleration is essentially putting the brakes on the trucking industry.
In addition, Matthews said, stiffer penalties would lead to more drivers with Super Speeder records, which would not only put them on longer suspensions but hurt their chances of maintaining a job at a reputable company. At a time when the U.S. faces a significant shortage of truck drivers, “the last thing we should do is take away the livelihood of people willing to do it,” Matthews argued.
At the time of the hearing, the House committee took no action on the bill. But the argument continues in the state of Georgia, with many voices clamoring to be heard on both sides of the issue.