Tracking Distracted Drivers Behind the Wheels of Big Rigs

You probably see it every time you're driving, and many of us are guilty of the same thing talking or texting behind the wheel.

In 2012, more than 421,000 people were injured and 3,328 people were killed in crashes involving distracted drivers across the country.

The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters decided to do some digging and observe the cellphone habits of drivers maneuvering the biggest vehicles on the roads.

We took our cameras to bridges over interstates 84, 91 and 95 over the course of several months looking for distracted drivers behind the wheels of big rigs.

In Enfield, Hartford, West Hartford and New Haven, it didn’t take long for us to find several drivers of tractor-trailers who appeared to be either talking or texting while driving.

“What we don’t want is that truck driver holding that phone up to his ear,” said Michael J. Riley, president of the Motor Transport Association of CT. “That’s distracted driving. That’s dangerous.”

Riley said the trucking industry has been one of the strongest advocates for tougher laws and better training to stop distracted driving.

“We have a lot of stake here,” said Riley. “There’s a moral commitment to doing things safely, there’s an economic component to it all, and we’re proud of what we do and we don’t want to do it in a way that jeopardizes anybody’s safety.”

While it was easy for us to find truckers using their cellphones, we wondered how many tickets are actually being written.

The Department of Motor Vehicles told the Troubleshooters that from July 2013-2014, 640 tickets were issued to drivers of commercial vehicles caught talking or texting at the wheel.

“There are studies that say the more proactive we are about enforcing it, the greater it does reduce it,” said Lt. Donald Bridge, a Connecticut DMV Inspector.

Throughout the year, inspectors hold blitzes looking for violations including distracted driving. But Bridge said it’s not always an easy infraction to catch.

“The trucks provide a higher platform for the driver so it’s harder to see in there, so we have to take vantage points where we’re up above that and looking down into the cabs,” said Bridge.

Researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute got as close to the driver as one can get, with cameras mounted inside the cabs, as part of study of driver behavior in commercial vehicles.

What they found after 3 million miles worth of data is that while talking and dialing at the wheel increase the likelihood of what they call "safety critical events," texting is by far the biggest threat.

"We found that truck drivers are 23 times more likely to be involved in one of these safety critical events compared to when they weren't texting," said Jeff Hickman, a researcher with VTTI.

That same study found that the average driver texting on their cellphone took his or her eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds. In that time at 55 miles per hour, a tractor trailer can cover the distance of an entire football field while the driver is looking away.

"It's not the laws that are the problem, it's enforcing it, right? So it takes time and money to enforce these laws," said Hickman.

Bridge said police try to enforce those laws to the extent that they can, hoping that the ones they do catch influence the ones they don’t to put down their phones.

“Better driving behavior, making sure you are the professional that you are, because the vehicle you’re driving is bigger than everyone else’s. And usually the bigger item wins when there’s a collision,” said Bridge.

Riley pointed out that truckers too often find themselves dodging the distracted drivers of passenger cars that put them in jeopardy.

But he said if you see a commercial driver talking or texting while driving, look at the company name on the truck and report them to the owner. That’s what he does.

“When that driver gets back, somebody brings him into the office and says ‘I know what happened, don’t do that anymore,’” said Riley. "Or if that’s the third time they get a call, that guy’s going to be looking for a job. And that’s what we want.”

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