Too many New York truck drivers are relying on consumer GPS systems to plan their routes, a practice that is leading to frequent encounters with low bridges, says Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Schumer asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to investigate the issue and consider developing federal standards for truck routing systems.
More than 80% of low-bridge strikes in New York are tied to GPS routing, Schumer said in a Sept. 24 letter
Older roads, particularly in downstate suburbs such as Westchester and Nassau, have warning signs about low bridges, but basic consumer GPS systems do not have this level of detail, he said.
"(The systems) funnel massive freight trucks into a major danger zone," he said. "Reports from local police organizations continue to fault the reliance on basic GPS technology as the main culprit in many of these low-bridge commercial truck accidents."
DOT is reviewing Schumer's request, said spokesman Justin Nisley.
Meanwhile, Nisley noted, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration encourages truck drivers to use GPS systems that include truck routing information, rather than the less-robust consumer systems.
The Illinois Approach
Schumer did not spell out what a federal GPS standard might look like, but last year Illinois passed a law that might be instructive for DOT.
In response to the same kind of problem that New York has, the Illinois General Assembly initially considered passing a law that would require truck drivers to use a commercial truck GPS system.
But before it acted, the Assembly put together a task force to study the issue. Based on the task force's recommendations, the Assembly backed away from the GPS mandate and adopted a more comprehensive approach.
The law requires local governments to report road restrictions and designations to the state Department of Transportation, which posts a unified list on its web site.
It also required the department to prepare a brochure to educate drivers about the problem by explaining the difference between a consumer and a commercial GPS system. That brochure is available on the Illinois DOT website.
And the department now includes material about the distinction between consumer and truck routing systems in its curriculum for its commercial driver's license exam.
The law has been in effect only since the start of the year but Don Schaeffer, executive vice president of the Mid-West Truckers Association, gives it high marks so far.
"We have seen a marked improvement in terms of getting local jurisdictions to provide (routing) information to the state of Illinois," he said. That data goes into a web-based IDOT map that includes local roads as well as state highways. "The effort has been very successful."
Schaeffer said there has not been enough time since the brochure and CDL material became available for the state to have hard data on low-bridge strikes, but he believes the number of strikes is down.
"We don't hear as much about bridge strikes as used to in the Chicago area," he said.
John McAvoy, director of engineering for GPS routing supplier Rand McNally, was instrumental in planning the Illinois law. He believes the issue in New York is the same as it is in Illinois: driver education.
"Drivers really don't know that there's a difference (between consumer GPS and truck GPS)," he said. "They need to know what types of devices are out there, and that there's a serious risk if you follow a car navigation device blindly if you're in a large vehicle."
There also may be a cost issue. Consumer systems can range from $100 to $175, while the more complex and sophisticated truck systems might range from $300 to $400, said Kendra Ensor, vice president of marketing at Rand McNally.