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Michael Phelan
Michael Phelan
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If You Thought Texting While Driving Was Dangerous…

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What could possibly be more dangerous than a teenager texting while driving? how about the driver of an 18 wheeler tractor trailer truck using a computer keyboard on his lap while driving. Hundreds of thousands of long-haul truckers use computers in their cabs to get directions and stay in close contact with dispatchers. Having these devices on-board makes sense. What makes no sense is the trucking industry’s position that these devices should be expempted from legislation banning texting while driving.

The trucking industry says these devices can be used safely, posing less of a distraction than BlackBerrys, iPhones and similar gadgets, and therefore should be exempted from legislation that would ban texting while driving. “We think that’s overkill,” Clayton Boyce, spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, said of a federal bill that would force states to ban texting while driving if they want to keep receiving federal highway money. Really? Is it really too much to ask that these truckers pull into a rest stop or off to the side of the road to use their computers? Picture a long-haul trucker who is lost after 6 straight hours of driving. He’s going 70 mph with one hand on the steering wheel, one hand on the computer keyboard placed on his lap, and his eyes focused on the computer screen and/or keyboard. That doesn’t sound to me like less of a distraction than and iPhone. I would wager that the average, middle-aged truck driver is not nearly as adept at operating a keyboard as is a teenager. No one is arguing that teenagers should be allowed to text while driving.

As the New York Times reports today, some safety advocates and researchers say the on-board computers — which can include a small screen near the steering wheel and a keyboard on the dash or in the driver’s lap — present precisely the same risk as other devices. And the risk may be even greater, they note, given the size of 18-wheel tractor trailers and the longer time required for them to stop.

Some truckers say they feel pressure to use their computers even while driving in order to meet tight delivery schedules.

“We’re supposed to pull over, but nobody ever does,” said Kurt Long, 46, a veteran trucker based in Wagoner, Okla., who hauls flour, sugar and other dry goods.

“When you get that load,” he added, “you go and you go and you go until you get there.”

The trucking industry has invested heavily in technology to wire vehicles. Satellite systems mounted on trucks let companies track drivers, send new orders, distribute companywide messages and transmit training exercises. Drivers can also use them to send and receive e-mail and browse the Internet.

After videotaping truckers behind the wheel, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that those who used on-board computers faced a 10 times greater risk of crashing, nearly crashing or wandering from their lane than truckers who did not use those devices. The study found that truckers using on-board computers take their eyes off the road for an average of four seconds, enough time at highway speeds to cover roughly the length of a football field.

Richard J. Hanowski, director of the Center for Truck and Bus Safety at the Virginia institute, said videotape monitoring of 200 truckers driving about three million miles showed many of them using the devices, even bypassing messages on the screen warning them not to use the devices while driving.