This story appears in the September 12 print edition of iTECH, a supplement to Transport Topics.
It’s a dire warning for a truck driver who has taken a wrong turn — a banner hanging over the roadway reading, “If you hit this sign you will hit that bridge.”
Certain bridges and overpasses with low clearances have become notorious for the havoc they have wreaked on heavy trucks when drivers miss the warning signs and plow into the structures.
While a combination of factors can lead to bridge strikes, a frequent cause is truck operators using turn-by-turn navigation software designed not for commercial vehicles but for passenger cars and light vehicles, according to trucking managers, drivers and local officials in news reports.
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There’s also a danger that truck drivers can find themselves stuck in residential or restricted areas while following GPS directions from consumer applications intended for cars.
“Any time a truck driver uses a personal GPS device, it will cause issues,” said Doug Schrier, vice president of continuous improvement and program management for Covenant Transportation Group.
A truck operator who uses GPS meant for a car and is directed into a residential area is in “a tough position” and may not be able to turn around, he said.
Fleets and drivers can reduce these risks by implementing truck-specific GPS-based navigation software that takes into account bridge clearances, weight and hazmat restrictions and residential areas where tractor-trailers are prohibited, technology vendors and trucking executives said.
Government statistics reveal the scope of the bridge-strike problem. Figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation show that in a five-year period, large trucks struck bridge supports, bridge overhead structures or bridge rails thousands of times annually: 3,421 times in 2010; 2,505 times in 2011; 2,676 in 2012; 5,139 times in 2013; and 4,209 times in 2014, the most recent year for which the DOT said it could provide figures. Fifteen of the crashes in that span were fatal, according to DOT.
Bridge strikes on parkways in the New York metropolitan area once prompted Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to propose that the United States set standards for GPS devices used by truck and bus drivers.
The Trucking Association of New York and American Trucking Associations suggested an industry awareness and education effort, which was taken up by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The agency today offers a visor card, “GPS Selection Guide for CMVs,” for distribution in the trucking industry and works with commercial driver training schools to encourage them to provide information on the selection of navigation systems.
FMCSA notes on its website that it does not have crash statistics associated with the use of electronic navigation but says it believes bridge strikes are avoidable “by paying closer attention to road signs and by the use of only those electronic navigation systems intended for trucks and buses.”
Covenant uses a telematics system made by Omnitracs that includes a navigation program called NaviGo, provided by Telogis.
The truckload carrier wanted to provide its drivers with accurate directions for trip planning “to be safer on the road,” Schrier said.
The fleet also created geofences for all of its customer locations and “points of interest,” as they are called in some navigation systems.
Drivers already had been guided to correct addresses, Schrier said, but that didn’t mean they actually knew how to enter a distribution location.
“There might be five, six, seven gates and only one of them will allow a truck to pass through,” he said. “We wanted to ensure that the truck knew what gate to go to the first time and that we had no end-mile accidents because of not giving drivers the right direction on a gate.”
Specific directions created for the last mile can be keyed to geofences, said Erin Cave, vice president of product management, compliance and navigation for Telogis. When a driver crosses that virtual threshold, the navigation system presents the specific maneuvers to a particular loading dock, Cave said.
Covenant now has more than 36,000 customized points of interest in the system, Schrier said.
“Since the 2013 inception of that program, we’ve had no major accidents associated with a driver being lost,” he said.
Covenant, based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, ranks No. 43 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers.
Cave said the Telogis system can be adjusted to reflect temporary road blockages and other traffic situations that may be fluid.
When a construction crane collapsed onto the Tappan Zee Bridge on July 19 during a project to replace the bridge, “we took it out of the network so no drivers would be routed to the area,” Cave said. After the bridge, which spans the Hudson River north of New York City, was cleared, it was restored to the navigation system, Cave said.
Verizon Communications acquired Telogis on July 29 for an undisclosed sum.
Some truck-specific navigation also can help drivers safely negotiate “the last mile” — the final part of a trip, where finding the right entrance to a property can pose a challenge. Drivers trying to find their way in that last portion of the journey can become distracted, exposing themselves to greater risk of an accident, technology vendors said.
And taking a wrong turn can land a driver in a tough spot.
Alec Costerus, an owner-operator based in the suburbs of Denver, said he encountered that situation more than once early in his career, when he used to rely on an atlas for navigation.
Using an atlas “gets you to the city,” he said, but “that doesn’t get you, turn-by-turn, to the actual loading dock that you need to go to.”
Costerus went down the wrong street on three different trips, he said. He recalled entering a residential neighborhood.
“It’s pretty hard to negotiate a turn,” he said. “It’s not designed for a 53-foot trailer, and there were some people who were illegally parked on a corner,” complicating matters further.
One time, telephone wires hanging low across the road added to his dilemma.
“I was frantic on one of those occasions,” Costerus remembered. “I said, ‘Never again will I drive without a GPS.’ ”
In fact, Costerus, now an owner-operator leased to Landstar System, has two Rand McNally devices in the cab of his Volvo truck — a GPS navigation unit that features truck routing and a tablet he uses for monitoring real-time traffic and weather so he can adjust his route if necessary. “I like having backup systems,” he added.
Landstar, based in Jacksonville, Florida, ranks No. 9 on the for-hire TT100.
Rand McNally issues a “major” update of its navigation software annually, with incremental updates periodically throughout the year, said John McAvoy, vice president of geographic information system engineering. Rand McNally partners with a digital mapping company, Here, formerly NavTeq, for the updating and also relies on its own database as well as input from its customers.
The use of truck-specific navigation systems is growing, vendors said.
More than 200,000 drivers of Classes 7 and 8 trucks are running ALK’s CoPilot Truck software on a variety of devices, including in-cab telematics systems and tablets, as well as smartphones, said Dan Popkin, senior vice president of enterprise solutions for ALK Technologies.
Popkin noted that a version of CoPilot Truck can be purchased from app stores and downloaded, making it “a lot more accessible to the driver population.”
“It’s certainly a growing market,” he said.
KLLM Transport Services has equipped 2,500 trucks with CoPilot Truck running on the Omnitracs platform “for consistency and safety reasons,” said Andy Morris, vice president of information systems for the carrier.
The navigation system, integrated with ALK’s PC Miler truck routing and mileage software and Manhattan Associates’ fuel and routing program, provides “convenience and enablement” for drivers, he said. Planned routes are sent to the in-cab device.
Together, Morris said, these systems help the carrier avoid low bridges and other features unfriendly to trucks, while also providing efficient routes and controlling fuel consumption.
Feedback from drivers has been favorable, with “very few” issues with accidents or violations, Morris said.
KLLM, based in Richland, Mississippi, ranks No. 36 on the for-hire TT100.
Martin Transportation Systems is running CoPilot Truck on PeopleNet in-cab telematics systems in 1,000 trucks.
Dale Dunaitis, the fleet’s administrator of electronic onboard recorders, said preplanned routes are created in the back office and sent to the device in the cab.
Dunaitis said he uses PeopleNet Fleet Manager, a web-based application, to assess drivers’ adherence to routes generated by the navigation system.
Martin, headquartered in Byron Center, Michigan, ranks No. 89 on the for-hire TT100.
The federal electronic logging mandate that is set to take effect in December 2017 is likely to spur further adoption of navigation software, vendors said.
Fleets implementing electronic logging devices for the first time to record hours of service and document driver vehicle inspection reports may be likely to make a “natural progression” to electronic navigation, Cave of Telogis suggested. More than 150,000 drivers log onto the Telogis system daily, she said.
Garmin offers dezlCam, a GPS navigator with a built-in dash camera to record the road ahead. The product, designed for independent truckers as well as fleets, features maps of North America that include truck-related restrictions such as bridge heights, sharp curves and weight limits, as well as related information for most major roads and highways, said Cesar Palacios of Garmin media relations. The price is $500.
TomTom also offers truck- specific navigation as part of its mapping and fleet management software, said Matthew Gunzenhaeuser, sales director for TomTom Telematics in the United States and Canada.
The company updates its navigation system four times per year, he said.
Jack’s Oil Distributing in Eden Valley, Minnesota, uses the TomTom system to manage 24 trucks, including tractors that pull tank trailers and flatbeds, said Randy Hesse, safety manager. The company started using the system more than five years ago.
“We get a lot more driver efficiency because drivers just type in the address, and it’ll get them just about anywhere they need to be,” Hesse said. ³