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New devices help big rigs avoid danger on highways

Coming soon to a tractor-trailer rig near you: devices that can alert a trucker when sharp curves lurk ahead, cars are tailgating him, or his rig is close to rolling over.

Such systems are in various stages of testing in the industry, with the furthest along being the rollover-stability monitor, said August Burgett, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash avoidance researcher working on the agency's Intelligent Vehicle Initiative.

Perhaps the most promising development, from the perspective of Toledo area motorists at least, is the Trucker Advisory Zones system that uses satellite positioning information to advise drivers about hazards like the lane shifts and sharp curves that have contributed to numerous accidents on I-75 and other freeways around the city.

“If a guy's got advance knowledge of what's out there on the road ahead of him, all that can do is create a safer roadway for all,” said Larry Davis, president of the Ohio Trucking Association.

In Toledo, such a system would flash an alert when a driver approached the twisting stretch of I-75 near downtown that has been the scene of numerous truck crashes over the years. The system would also he helpful in warning unfamiliar truckers with the sharply curved ramp from southbound U.S. 23 to eastbound I-475 in Sylvania Township.

The system is soon to be road-tested on the fleet of McKenzie Truck Lines, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based tanker service, Mr. Burgett said. A map database has been created for parts of 11 eastern and southeastern states in which McKenzie handles a lot of business, and equipment for the trucks is “just now being delivered,” he said.

Still in the early development stage is a device that would monitor a driver's eyelids to determine whether he or she was becoming drowsy. Field tests for that device aren't expected to begin until 2003.

Testing on the rollover-stability system is nearly complete, however, and data collection is expected to end by Nov. 30. Mr. Burgett said the safety administration will review the test data and expects to make recommendations by June.

The system uses instrumentation on the truck tractor's “fifth-wheel” - the joint at which the trailer is connected - and collects information from engine computers to analyze how close a rig is to the point at which it could roll over while rounding a curve. The system then can automatically reduce power from the engine to help head off a crash.

Previous systems that included instrumentation on the trailer were considered effective, Mr. Burgett said, but there were compatibility issues among tractors and trailers. Developing tractor-only technology means a truck can haul any trailer and the system will work.

Rollover stability should be a “relatively inexpensive addition” to truck equipment because it can be combined with other systems that big rigs already have, Mr. Burgett said.

Keith Tuttle, president of Motor Carrier Service in Northwood, said his fleet has used the Global Positioning System for four years. GPS uses satellites to provide detailed location and map information to track a truck's progress. When one driver reports encountering a traffic or weather problem, information is instantly relayed to other drivers in the area so they can take action.

With increasing traffic straining the capacity of many highways, an effective proximity-warning system will be a welcome addition to a truck's equipment, Mr. Tuttle said. A substantial number of truck crashes involve vehicles the truck driver couldn't see because of their position, he said.

“There are so many blind spots around the truck,” Mr. Davis agreed.

The testing of the proximity system, which includes evaluation of new brake technology, is about to begin using 100 trucks belonging to U.S. Xpress, a nationwide dry van carrier, Mr. Burgett said. Results are expected by early 2004.

A timeline for the trucker-advisory system testing remains to be determined.

Mr. Tuttle said his firm, which has about 100 trucks, doesn't have the resources to be on technology's leading edge, but does follow through once the various systems are refined and become widely available at a reasonable price.

“As the cost does come down, these are all systems we will be implementing,” he said.

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