BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Distracted driving is a big problem across the nation. In 2012, 3,328 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver, according to the federal government.
Distracted driving includes talking on a cell phone or reading or sending texts or emails behind the wheel.
And it’s not just people driving cars who are sometimes distracted drivers. News 4 Investigates recently observed the cell phone habits of drivers behind the wheel of tractor trailers and some of the results are startling.
Ginny Gowen has seen her share of distracted truck drivers while cruising the country in a big rig.
“It’s very dangerous,” said Gowen, who’s based out of Baltimore, Maryland.
News 4 spoke with Gowen at a local truck stop. She had story after story of close calls involving truck drivers and distracted driving.
“Some of them are going 70 and I’m like ‘Dude, hang up the phone!'” Gowen said. “It takes away from the road. You need to get the whole picture.”
Texting or talking on a cell phone can and does have disastrous consequences.
In 2013 a truck driver crashed his semi into parked emergency vehicles on an Arizona highway killing an Arizona Department of Public Safety officer. Video of the incident shows the driver at the wheel of the truck, but his wallet was partially blocking the view of the dash camera. At the moment of impact the video shows a white cell phone flying through the air.
Arizona authorities claim the truck driver was using his cell phone while behind the wheel.
“You got to be careful and be watching all the time what’s happening around you,” said Chris Dookeran, a truck driver based out of Toronto.
He says looking down for even a few seconds is asking for big trouble.
“By the time you lift your head back up you can’t stop. You can’t get your rig to stop in time,” Dookeran said.
But some truck drivers don’t seem to get it. In just a couple of hours, News 4 spotted numerous truck drivers who appeared to be either talking or texting while driving on busy WNY highways.
Along I-190 near downtown, News 4 cameras spotted an NFTA bus driver who appeared to be holding a cell phone in one hand while steering with the other.
“You can see where his eyes are averted not on the highway, but on the device itself,” said Sgt. Ed Schramm of the New York State Police. Sgt. Schramm says NYS state law is very clear about the use of hand-held electronic devices while driving.
“Nothing in their hand. Nothing to dial. Nothing to read. It has to be dash mounted so that you don’t avert your eyes off the road,” said Schramm. “The only thing they can utilize is voice activated or one-push button. If it’s mounted on the dash or mounted somewhere within the truck within reach of the driver.”
The number of Commercial Vehicle Drivers ticketed in New York State for texting has increased from 92 in 2011 to 787 in 2013, according to data provided by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.
The same data showed that 4,359 CMV drivers were ticketed for cell phone use in 2013, up from 3,563 in 2011. But as our News 4 Investigation discovered, some truck drivers are not complying with the law.
A study by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that text messaging made the risk of crash or near crash 23 times greater than when not texting.
Jeffrey Hickman, a senior research associate and group leader with VTTI’s Center for Bus and Truck Safety, says the study found that text messaging had the longest duration of eyes off the road.
“We had cameras in the trucks,” said Hickman. “Texting was essentially the most visually distracting task.” About 4.6 cumulative seconds over a 6 second interval is the amount of time eyes were off the forward roadway, the study found. That equates to traveling the length of a football field at 55 miles per hour without looking at the roadway.
“Obviously when you’re not looking at the forward roadway; if something unexpected happens in front of you then you’re in big trouble. Even if it’s for a relatively short period of time; a few seconds,” said Hickman.
In December 2009 a woman from Synder was killed when a trucker plowed his rig into a disabled car on the Thruway near Pembroke. Authorities determined the truck driver was distracted by watching pornographic material on his laptop computer.
Getting a traffic ticket for using a hand-held electronic device can also be compounded by hefty federal civil penalties, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). Drivers who violate the restriction will face federal civil penalties of up to $2,750 for each offense and disqualification from operating a commercial motor vehicle for multiple offenses.
Additionally, states will suspend a driver’s commercial driver’s license (CDL) after two or more serious traffic violations.
Commercial truck and bus companies that allow their drivers to use hand-held cell phones while driving will face a maximum penalty of $11,000.
“I’m certain that the future is that the carrier as the owners of these companies are held more and more accountable for this, that you’ll see less and less of it,” said Sgt. Ed Schramm.
Truck driver Chris Dookeran believes it comes down to common sense. “You got to decide. You know what. I do not need to do this now. I can always do this when I stop,” he said.
Ginny Gowen believes that drivers should always think about safety. “Safety first people. You want to get home to your loved ones, put the phones down,” she told News 4.
FMCSA banned commercial truck and bus drivers from texting while driving in September 2010, and later banned all hand-held cell phone use by commercial drivers in November 2011.
In response to News 4’s investigation of distracted truck driving, the American Trucking Associations, a national trade association for the trucking industry, released the following statement:
“The American Trucking Associations (ATA) was an early proponent of the Federal prohibitions on texting and handheld cellular phone use by commercial motor vehicle operators. Further, ATA believes that – in the interest of improving highway safety – such a ban should extend to all motorists.”
Sgt. Ed Schramm says the State Police are in the process of increasing enforcement inspections for commercial motor vehicle drivers.
“We are currently training 30 more people across Western New York. So we’ll have 50 troopers in New York that can do driver only [inspections] on commercial motor vehicles,” said Schramm.
He says it’s important that the proper documentation is done to hold both the driver and the carrier accountable. “That’s where the enforcement’s going to come internally; is to make sure the carrier holds their drivers accountable,” said Schramm.
A NYS DMV summary of large truck crashes in 2013 found that nearly 20 percent listed driver inattention or distraction as a contributing factor.