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Published: Thursday, 10/8/2009

Remove the distractions

THE American Trucking Associations believe that including on-board computers for drivers to use to keep in touch with their home base in a federal bill that bans on-the-road texting while driving is “overkill.” But here's another definition: Overkill is driving your 3,000-pound vehicle and being crushed by an 80,000-pound truck whose driver has his eyes on a computer screen instead of the road.

The trucking industry claims the computer setups, a small screen mounted on the dash and a keyboard on the dash or the driver's lap, are safer than hand-held texting devices such as iPhones. According to a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study, which followed 200 truck drivers for 3 million miles of driving, the industry's right.

But truck drivers who text were 23 times more likely to get into an accident than those who didn't, the study said. Truckers using their computers while tooling along at highway speeds were 10 times as likely to wreck as those who actually pay attention to the road while driving. But arguing that computers are OK because they only increase the danger of a fatal accident by a factor of 10 is ridiculous.

The Virginia Tech study also found that the average time truckers spent looking at their computer screens was four seconds. At 65 mph, a truck travels 381 feet — more than the distance from goalpost to goalpost on a football field — while the driver isn't watching. Let's say a disabled vehicle is blocking the highway ahead when the driver looks up. The truck will travel 71 feet before he even begins to brake, and another 454 feet before the truck stops moving. Altogether, that's more than 900 feet, three football fields. Anything on the highway inside that 900 feet could be road kill.

Drivers complain that their pay can be docked if they miss delivery deadlines by even a few minutes, and that puts pressure on them not to pull over to read messages. As for trucking firms, time is money. An official at Con-way, which operates some 12,000 trucks, told the New York Times that trucks sitting idle cost the company $1.50 per minute. Meanwhile, the Times reported that fatal accidents caused by semi tractor-trailers have been on the rise for more than a decade, despite truck-safety improvements.

Distracted truck drivers, and other motorists under pressure to maintain tight schedules, are undoubtedly part of the cause. The solution is obvious. Enact federal legislation to force states to ban texting — including in-cab computers — in all vehicles, from Smart cars to semis. It's time to put the brakes on distracted drivers.



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