Real Data on Safety Hazards of Navigation System Use in Trucks

May 23, 2013

While there has been much media attention focused on the potential safety hazards of using inappropriate navigation systems in big rigs, up until now most of the information available was purely anecdotal.

But a study released by the American Transportation Research Institute ATRI sheds some light on the subject.

There's no doubt that the use of navigation systems in trucks is dramatically increasing. A poll of professional truck drivers conducted in 2007 indicated that 11% of respondents used GPS navigation devices. This number grew to 19% in 2008 and 27% in 2009. By 2012 this population reached 54%. According to ABI Research, global shipments of commercial nav systems, such as those used in large trucks, will climb from 3 million in 2010 to 7.5 million by 2015.

The increased popularity and use of nav systems in the trucking industry has resulted in new nav system-related safety concerns. These concerns primarily center on truck driver use of nav systems that are principally designed for passenger vehicles, which may result in a truck driver following directions and routes that are inappropriate for large trucks. Evidence suggests that using navigation systems that are not specifically designed for large truck operations has a detrimental impact on safety.

For example, bridge strikes have been particularly troublesome in the state of New York. The New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) has stated that 81% of these types of crashes were a consequence of large trucks using non-commercial or outdated GPS systems for navigation. These and other crash types blamed on the use of nav systems have spurred a significant amount of negative press, which has caught the attention of legislatures both in the U.S. and abroad.

Beyond concerns regarding the use of car-oriented nav systems by truck drivers, the potential for driver distraction from nav system use has been raised as another safety issue. In a 2005 review of the truck driver distraction problem, the DOT and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) acknowledged that most driver distraction research to date was primarily focused on passenger vehicles and cellular phone use. The report highlights a lack of information regarding the extent of truck driver distraction from in-vehicle technologies such as nav systems or how any such distractions may differ from those experienced by passenger car drivers.

Given that little crash data exists that directly ties large truck crashes to nav system usage, ATRI researchers explored alternative methodologies for investigating the issue. The two new approaches will 1) assess nav system usage in the industry, and 2) attempt to identify the technical basis for nav system failures and inadequacies from a truck operations perspective.

In the first phase of the research ATRI collected and analyzed a large survey data sample on nav system usage, including perceived utility, and associated benefits and risks for truck drivers who use nav systems.

The study also identified the key priorities that nav system providers should address in order to meet the needs of the trucking industry.

The ATRI research team collected data from over 800 professional truck drivers and motor carrier executives through online and in-person surveys.

Overall results indicate high levels of use and trust in nav system technology, especially among new drivers and large carriers. According to the carrier respondents, 51% allowed or encouraged their drivers to use nav systems. Furthermore, 51% of carriers supplied nav systems in their fleets.

According to the driver respondents, 88% of their carrier employers allowed or encouraged nav system use.

The majority of driver respondents (54%) who used a nav system used one specifically designed for commercial trucks. However, nearly one-third (31%) used a car-oriented nav system. Stand-alone nav units were the most commonly used nav systems according to both driver and carrier respondents.

Only 2% of driver respondents indicated that, at some point in their career, they had been involved in a crash that they believe was caused by directions or information provided by a nav system. Responses from carriers imply a similarly low rate. In a two-part question, carriers were asked 1) how many crashes their drivers reported as being the result of a nav system error and 2) how many crashes they, the carrier, believed were due to nav system errors. According to the carriers, an average of four nav system-related crashes were reported per year for their entire fleet. However, carriers believed that, on average, only two of the four reported crashes were actually the result of nav system use.

This survey solicited information from carriers relating to methods for providing directions to drivers. Key findings of the survey included:

  • The majority of carriers indicated that both the driver and the carrier have a role in the planning of a driver's route for both pre-trip routing (58%) and route changes (57%).
  • For those trucks that are equipped with a nav system provided by the carrier, stand-alone nav units (50%) were most common followed by embedded nav systems (32%) and other navigation technologies such as a company-provided smartphone (19%).
  • The majority of carriers (51%) allow or encourage nav system use.
  • Generally, carriers feel that nav systems are effective at providing benefits that outweigh the cost of providing the system.
  • Among carriers who reported crashes due to a nav system error, the most common error was directing the driver to a road unsuitable for trucks (41%) followed by navigating to roads with inadequate bridge/overpass clearance (34%).

The analysis revealed several trends regarding the use of nav systems by the trucking industry. Drivers, for example, are more likely purchase a nav system for themselves rather than be provided one by a carrier. This is likely due to the fact that the majority of drivers surveyed (59%) have the authority to make their own routing decisions and provide their own directions. Stand-alone units, which are smaller and portable, were more widely used by drivers (41%) than the more expensive embedded nav systems (17%).

The majority of carriers (62%) and drivers (73%) were "somewhat" or "very" trusting of nav system accuracy. Carriers also felt that nav systems are effective at providing benefits that outweigh the cost of providing the system. Despite the high levels of trust and perceived benefits, nearly half of the carriers (49%) do not supply these systems in any of their vehicles. Carriers with 250 or more power units were most likely to equip their vehicles with nav systems while carriers with fewer than 50 power units were least likely.

The majority of carriers (51%) allow or encourage drivers to use nav systems yet may not provide a system in their trucks. In instances where a carrier does not provide one, drivers may be inclined to use car-oriented systems, which are typically less expensive than truck-specific versions, ATRI found. In fact, one-third of driver respondents (31%) did not use a nav system specifically designed for commercial truck operations. Furthermore, some carriers may be directly contributing to this unsafe practice. Of the 51% of carriers who provided nav systems to their drivers, 21% supplied systems that were designed for passenger cars.

Respondents who had a nav system-related crash indicated that the system directed the driver to a road unsuitable for trucks, such as those with an inadequate bridge/overpass clearance or where a turnaround maneuver was not possible. Carriers noted bridge strikes, car strikes, and jackknives as the most common crash types that occur due to a nav system error.

The results of the survey also highlight the most liked and disliked nav system attributes. Drivers and carriers both chose incorrect or unsafe routes for large trucks and "dated" route information as their most disliked attributes.

ATRI suggests that nav system manufacturers should therefore ensure that their commercial truck products contain appropriate information (e.g. bridge height and restricted route data) as well as ensure that timely updates are made to existing systems. Furthermore, features such as the verbal commands being too hard to hear and the screen being too small for drivers to see easily could be adjusted to better suit the in-cab environment in which truck drivers operate. "Such modifications may also have the potential to increase safety and further reduce the number of nav system-related crashes," researchers said.

A number of studies illustrate the advantages associated with nav system use by professional truck drivers. In a 2006 study, researchers conducted an eight-week trial of portable nav systems in four large truck fleets. The research found that drivers would spend an average of 676 fewer minutes (11.3 hours) annually looking for destinations if they were to use a nav system. While some of the fleets saw as much as an 89% reduction in lost minutes, the time benefit was largely dependent on the type of operation, with multi-drop fleets experiencing the greatest benefits.

Additionally, research has found that most drivers find nav systems less distracting than maps or road atlases or following printed directions. Despite the strong growth in the nav system market, conventional methods for providing directions to drivers, such as printed maps, remain popular among drivers.

In a 2012 poll of nearly 500 professional truck drivers, a standard truck road atlas was the most preferred method among the survey's routing options (69%), followed by a GPS routing device (54%), GPS load technology (21%), and route planning software (19%). Nonetheless, GPS navigation products and internet-based map services are quickly replacing the atlas. Older drivers may still prefer paper maps, but the preponderance of consumers are switching to digital sources for their navigation needs.

ATRI says this first phase of research offers important insight on the use and perceptions of nav systems in the trucking industry and identifies the types of crashes that typically occur due to nav system errors. Building upon this knowledge, ATRI will conduct further research to identify the technical basis for nav system failures and inadequacies from a truck operations perspective.

The majority of research, conducted primarily outside of the United States, fails to adequately address nav systems used specifically by truck drivers. Furthermore, nav system vendors often sponsor truck-oriented nav system research; significantly less literature is derived from independent scholarly sources.


This first phase of research focused on the use of, and perspectives related to, truck driver use of nav systems.

The driver survey was designed to solicit a variety of inputs. It consisted of 17 questions related to demographics, extent/frequency of nav system use and measurements of driver perceptions of navigation technology. The carrier survey, comprised of 22 questions, focused on management perceptions and experiences with nav system use. The questions were primarily of multiple-choice, closed-ended format allowing for quantitative analysis, though a small portion of open-ended questions also generated qualitative data.

The survey was distributed at two industry events; the 2012 Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Kentucky and the 2012 Georgia Motor Trucking Association's annual Truck Driving Championships. In addition, an online version of the survey was made available and publicized through ATRI's industry contact database and multiple state trucking associations memberships.


As previously noted, the ATRI research team collected data from a total of 677 professional truck drivers; distribution of the paper survey resulted in 211 responses and the online survey collected data from an additional 466 drivers.

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