A fully-loaded 80,000-pound 18-wheeler looms in your rearview mirror, terrifying in its sheer size, weight, and speed. Maybe it is spewing out bits of trash on the road, or rocks that could hit and pit your windshield. Then your heart races when you realize the worst: the truck driver is texting or talking on a cell phone instead of keeping his eyes on the road!
You are not over-reacting to the danger posed by commercial truck drivers engaged in “distracted driving,” behavior that has increased exponentially as cell phone and other wired gadgets become more common.
New communications technologies give truck drivers instant access to information they need, such as about weather and emergency conditions, and to dispatchers and delivery points. But phone calls and text messages in a two-ton big rig going 70 miles an hour can be lethal.
A national safety summit on distracted driving revealed alarming statistics: texting and cell phone use are increasingly the cause of truck accidents.
Responding to national attention on distracted driving in general, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) convened a Distracted Driving Summit in September 2009 to share information on this growing problem.
Research by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) – an agency under DOT which focuses on reducing crashes, deaths, and injuries involving large trucks and buses – confirmed that texting by truck drivers poses substantial accident risks.
- Drivers who are texting take their eyes off the road an average of 4.6 seconds out of every 6 seconds.
- At 55 miles an hour, this is the equivalent of traversing an entire football field, from end zone to end zone, without looking at the road.
- Drivers who text while driving are 23 times more likely than non-texters to be involved in a crash or a near-accident.
These findings have substantial impact upon public safety, given the number of commercial vehicle drivers and large trucks on our highways.
Trucking is a huge industry in the United States as the primary way for manufacturers and distributors to get their goods to market. Department of Labor statistics indicate that there are more than 680,000 commercial carriers, and 1.8 million long-haul, over-the-road drivers.
Of the approximate 41,000 Americans killed each year in traffic accidents, nearly 5,000 die as a result of crashes involving these large trucks.
With so many licensed commercial truck drivers on the road, it is not surprising that driver error is responsible for a majority of big truck accidents. Major reasons for driver error include speeding, being unfamiliar with the roadway, prescription drug use, fatigue, and stress from the pressure to deliver on time. Increasingly, however, accidents have been caused by distractions such as texting and cell phone use.
In just one example, in April 2009, the driver of an 18-wheeler in Florida admitted that he was texting just before he crashed into a school bus full of children.
That’s why a federal ban on texting was announced in January 2010, prohibiting texting by drivers of commercial vehicles.
In early 2010, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a federal ban on texting by drivers of commercial vehicles such as large trucks and buses, effective immediately.
While 30 states, the District of Columbia and Guam have passed legislation prohibiting texting by drivers of all vehicles, this is the first federal regulation, and the first one singling out commercial vehicle drivers. The federal ban calls for civil or criminal penalties of up to $2,750 for truck or bus drivers who text while driving.
In addition to the texting ban, the Department of Transportation has proposed a ban on the use of hand-held cell phones by commercial truck and bus drivers.
Only eight states so far prohibit hand-held cell phone use by all drivers, including truck drivers. Statistics connecting cell phone use with vehicle crashes are just now surfacing, but one government study says that drivers distracted by hand-held devices are four times more likely than others to have a serious accident. Federal legislation has been proposed to require states to collect data on cell phone/electronic equipment distraction on police accident reports in order to qualify for some kinds of federal funding.
On December 17, 2010, the DOT proposed a plan to ban cell phone use by truckers, which would affect about four million interstate commercial drivers. If this ban is enacted, a truck driver could pay up to $2,750 for each offense and lose his or driver’s license for repeated offenses; and trucking companies could be fined up to $11,000. In its announcement, DOT noted that many major corporations – among them UPS and Wal-Mart – have voluntarily prohibited their drivers from using cell phones on the road.
Studies of cell phone use show that it’s not the talking, it’s the reaching and dialing that prove hazardous.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2010 Traffic Safety Facts reports that in 2008, as many as 6,000 fatalities and 20% of all crashes could be traced to vehicle accidents where drivers were distracted. One FMCSA study indicates that a truck driver’s actions in reaching and dialing a cell phone are far more dangerous than talking, and that hands-free devices offer significant protection from crash risk.
However, research continues into distraction risks that are not visual, but cognitive. For example, a truck driver’s concentration on safe driving is interrupted when talking on a cell phone or conversing with truck passengers.
The Distracted Driving Summit of 2009 produced valuable recommendations for improving commercial motor vehicle safety and reducing big truck accidents.
After examining many of the critical issues related to distracted driving among commercial truck drivers, DOT made several important recommendations to reduce distraction and increase safety.
- Truck fleet managers should educate their drivers about the dangers of routine distractions such as reaching for sunglasses, adjusting a mirror, or looking at a map.
- In-vehicle devices should be kept to a minimum, discouraging drivers from bringing and using electronic gadgets, even calculators.
- Drivers should use dispatching devices only when stopped, not while driving. The distraction of using these devices is similar to that of dialing a cell phone.
- Drivers should not manually dial cell phones, but should use voice-activated, hands-free dialing when calls are necessary.
- Reading, writing, or looking at maps while driving should be prohibited, because these actions take a driver’s eyes off the road.
- Designers of truck instrument panels should be aware of the increased risks of more complicated devices, and should consider hands-free interface.
As it turns out, driver distractions don’t originate only inside the truck. Now, consumer safety advocates are raising concerns about digital roadside billboards.
Expanding concerns about visual distractions that confront drivers of both commercial trucks and passenger cars, safety advocates have raised the possibility that digital roadside billboards offer drivers external diversions from concentrating on the road. Although evidence is still scanty, the Michigan legislature convened hearings in March 2010 to consider imposing a moratorium on new billboard construction.
At issue are the brightly-lit, fast-moving digital billboards that flash different advertising messages every few seconds, alerting drivers to everything from breaking news to restaurant lunch specials.
For many years, the Federal Highway Administration, another agency of DOT, prohibited states from having free-standing billboards with “flashing, intermittent or moving light or lights.” In 2007, however, the FHWA backed off, ruling that free-standing digital billboards did not violate the rules as long as they stayed in place at least four seconds and were not “unreasonably bright.”
The attorneys at Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley have more than 30 years experience with truck crashes that have devastated families in Florida and other states. If you or a loved one has been injured in a big truck accident, please fill out our Contact Form, or call us at 800-780-8607 to schedule a free initial consultation.