GPS: Leading truckers down the wrong road?

The most useful navigational and route plotting tool since the Atlas, GPS technology is available inexpensively on virtually every communications device from smart phones to note pads to laptops and widely used by motorists especially commercial truck drivers to successfully wind their way through America's highway systems.

But using GPS can lead truckers into disastrous situations, especially if drivers are relying on routing technology not specifically designed for commercial vehicles.

According to a New York State Department of Transportation study, over 200 bridge accidents per year have occurred in New York since 2005 and more than 80% of bridge strikes are caused by misdirection from GPS devices.

Relying on faulty GPS directions led one trucker on a path to destruction and imprisonment.

Truck driver Marcos Barbosa Costa, 46, was hauling cars over the on a particularly dangerous stretch of mountain road the Angeles Crest Highway in Southern California when his brakes his double-decker truck failed. Costa's truck ran a red light and slammed into a car driven by Angel Posca, 58, who was killed along with his daughter 12-year-old Angela. Posca's car was dragged 150 feet and the truck struck six more vehicles before crashing into a bookstore and nail salon.

The trucker was misdirected to the route via his truck GPS and once on the highway, couldn't turn around.

Costa was sentenced to 7 years and 4 months in prison as a result of his conviction of involuntary manslaughter, manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving in the 2009 crash.

Being led down the wrong road isn't the only way GPS can cause problems.

On Feb. 7 a truck driver, who was distracted adjusting his GPS device, ran off Highway 14 near Vancouver, WA, and dumped his tractor-trailer on the railroad tracks. His rig was rammed from behind by a freight train.

No one was injured in the crash but the trucker was charged with second-degree negligent driving.

While navigation systems are becoming increasingly commonplace in the nation's commercial vehicles, the impact that these devices have on driver behavior, decision-making and safety is not fully understood, according to the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI). According to ATRI, there is mounting anecdotal evidence that GPS navigation units are being blamed for large truck crashes where bridge strikes and other crashes in which the truck driver was using a navigation system designed for passenger vehicles.

ATRI, the research arm of the trucking industry, launched a survey last October that explores the use of navigation systems by commercial drivers. The results of the survey will provide further insight on the use of these systems and their impact in commercial trucking operations, ATRI hopes, as well as the impacts that other methods for providing directions to drivers might have on fleet safety and operations. The results of the survey have yet to be released.

Federal and state legislators have taken also an interest in the truck GPS safety issue.

One U.S. Senator wants the Department of Transportation to issue nationwide standards for GPS devices in commercial trucks. In a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) said the absence of GPS standards for commercial results in many situations in which trucks use GPS devices that do not differentiate between roads on which trucks are allowed and on which they are not, often leading to trucks attempting to pass under bridges that are too low.

Schumer noted that truck accidents as a result of poor GPS information, in addition to being life threatening, cause massive delays and impose significant costs on taxpayers. "These accidents are frequent, costly, dangerous and entirely avoidable. If we have the technology to send a truck to Mars, we have the technology to prevent trucks from crashing into bridges," he said.

Schumer also announced recently that entry-level CDL holders will be required to be trained to operate global positioning systems, a stipulation that will be included in the upcoming entry-level CDL operator rule that will be released by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in the coming months.

Illinois has enacted a law making truck routing and restrictions more accessible to the commercial trucking industry. The new law also provides a program to educate professional truck drivers about the vast differences between truck and car GPS devices.

Among other things, the new law, that went into effect on January 1, 2012, requires local jurisdictions to provide the most up-to-date truck route information to the Illinois Department of Transportation, which in turn posts this information online. John McAvoy, director of engineering for Rand McNally, was one of nine members of the Task Force appointed to make recommendations on the GPS legislation.

"There is a significant gap between what is readily available, and what should be reported and made available for manufacturers, to utilize in providing accurate truck-specific routing. Providing vital height and weight information in an easily accessible format will benefit all who share the road," said McAvoy.

In a move to help educate truckers, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has begun distributing cards to truck drivers warning them that using navigation GPS devices meant for smaller vehicles can be dangerous. FMCSA posted its official recommendations on its website as a "visor card," meant for drivers to keep in their trucks.

"It is important to understand that not all navigation systems are the same," FMCSA states. "That is why it is critical for truck and bus drivers to use the right navigation system when operating a commercial truck or bus. By using a navigation system that does not provide important route restrictions, such as low bridge overpasses, the shortcut you thought would save you time and fuel may end up costing you more than you bargained for. A typical system that a consumer might buy at an electronics or auto parts store may not have software programming to show low bridges, hazmat routes and other information relevant to commercial motor vehicle operators."

The visor card gives tips for safe use of navigation systems, and can be downloaded free-of-charge. The visor card provides tips on selecting the proper navigation system designed for trucks and buses, and the correct use of the navigation systems. For example, in order for the navigation system to provide you with the appropriate route, truck and bus drivers should enter all relevant information such as vehicle's length, width and height; axle weight; and any hazardous materials being hauled. FMCSA also warns truckers:

  • Always obey traffic signs and advisories (such as low bridge overpasses, axle weight limits, etc.) especially if they provide restrictions the navigation system did not warn you about.
  • Do not engage in distracted driving. Avoid typing or entering addresses or information into the GPS while driving.
  • Not all GPS systems automatically update maps be sure to update your maps often so that you are following the most current route planning information.

For more information or to download the visor card go to http://fmcsa.dot.gov/about/outreach/education/gps-visor-card.aspx

Have you or your drivers been led astray by bad GPS truck guidance? Do you think the situation requires federal intervention? Let us know your thoughts.

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