In November of 2017, an Illinois tractor-trailer driver took his eyes off the road just long enough to reach for a cup of tea.
He failed to pay attention to what was ahead of him for only a few seconds, but those seconds were enough time to trigger a 10-car accident that killed four women. According to the police at the scene, the truck driver never slowed down for the stalled traffic ahead of him.
According to statistics, distracted driving is the top cause of accidents on the roads, and is the reason for as many as 80 percent of all tractor-trailer accidents, most of them fatal because of the size and weight of a semi compared to the passenger vehicles with which they share the road.
Those accidents, however, could be avoided if truckers were more mindful of what was going on around them as they traveled, keeping not only themselves safe, but others safe as well.
“Drivers need to be accountable,” said Illinois State Trooper Calvin Dye Jr. after the Illinois crash on Interstate 55 that killed the four women and left the driver injured, according to Fox (1).
Common Distractions for Truck Drivers
Some of the most common causes of crashes related to distracted driving include:
- Cell phone use. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, it is illegal for commercial truck drivers to either talk or text on a hand-held cell phone. Still, statistics show that truck drivers who text are 23 times more likely to be involved in an accident than those who don’t, and those who dial a cell phone are six times more likely to be involved in a crash.
- Looking at maps. While GPS systems make traveling cross-country easier, truck drivers are often traveling unfamiliar routes, and looking at a map or a GPS route can be significantly distracting. In fact, in 2012, United States Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) called for national standards for the use of GPS systems on commercial vehicles due to accidents related to their use in his home state.
- Eating or drinking. The November 2017 accident on Illinois’s Interstate 55 happened in seconds when the driver reached for his beverage. “He admitted to us he reached down to pick up his tea, taking his eyes off the roadway, striking the first of several vehicles,” Dye told the Belleville News-Democrat.
- Reaching down for a dropped item. Many truck drivers use music or audio books to entertain themselves during the long hours spent on the road. A dropped CD, however, can cause enough distraction to lead to a fatal crash.
- Talking to passengers. While in most cases regulations make carrying passengers illegal in commercial tractor-trailers, the rules regarding driving teams are different. As long as each member of the team gets the requisite amount of rest between shifts – neither can drive more than 11 hours and each must get 10 hours of rest during a 24-hour shift – trucks to reach their destinations much faster because they can be on the road for longer hours. That does not mean that there won’t be distractions, however, especially because many are husband-and-wife teams.
“People are dying because of a simple missed phone call … or some other event that is completely not important,” said Martha Meade of AAA Mid-Atlantic.
And legislation may not change that, she added.
“We can pass all the laws in the world, but we can’t legislate intelligence behind the wheel.”
Tips for Preventing Distracted Driving
Sometimes, it’s impossible to avoid distracted driving, especially in Illinois, where a deer can run across an interstate without warning or a block of snow that another driver failed to brush off the top of his or her trailer flies off into your windshield, but there are things that drivers can do to make them better able to respond to an emergency.
- Keep cell phones or other devices out of reach. If you must use a cell phone or GPS device, pull into a truck stop or rest stop to make your call or check your route. Hands-free devices are also safer and less likely to cause an accident.
- Get enough rest. When drivers don’t get enough sleep, their response times are slower. Being well-rested on the road – that means following federal regulations regarding time behind the wheel vs. time spent sleeping or relaxing – will make distractions less likely to cause trouble.
- Eat and drink at truck stop restaurants. Spilled beverages and dropped burgers can cause chaos in the cab of a truck, and can have deadly consequences. Eating and drinking outside of your big rig will not only give your eyes a break, it will also make you safer behind the wheel.
- Prep entertainment before hitting the road. Music, audiobooks, podcasts and others forms of entertainment are great ways to help pass the time while driving, but fumbling for the next CD in your audiobook series can be dangerous. Have everything ready and at your fingertips to keep you safer behind the wheel.
Distracted driving is not without its penalties. Drivers can face fines, can lose their licenses and in some cases, can face civil lawsuits or jail time.