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Despite federal law, distracted truckers caught on tape with cellphones

(KSL-TV)


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SALT LAKE CITY — When you're driving down the freeway, you're bound to see a lot of texting, talking, and web surfing from drivers who are distracted by their cellphones. It's been the subject of many KSL stories in the past, but what about those drivers you can't see, like semi drivers? A federal law went into effect in 2012, banning truckers from using hand-held cellphones. But as KSL Investigators found out, it isn't stopping some of them.

"Everybody does it, unfortunately," said semi truck driver Tamara Wylie. "I see a lot of them doing this (looking down), you see a lot of them talking, you see it all."

"I have done it before and you lose control really easily on a vehicle that big," admitted semi truck driver Craig Cordero. "You start drifting almost immediately."

And when that truck starts drifting, you don't want to be on the receiving end.

"When he came right for me I just thought I was going to be gone, that was it," remembered Lacinda Brown. "They call me the miracle lady."

'Miracle lady'

She's earned the nickname. After all, not many people have been hit head-on by a semi truck and lived to tell about it. In May, Brown was driving from Vernal to Provo. The roads were clear, but there was an extremely big problem. A semi driver, going the opposite way, failed to see the cars slowing in front of him. He swerved into oncoming traffic and slammed into Brown's Toyota. The driver of the semi was initially cited. Distracted driving was listed as a contributing factor.

"I don't know if he was falling asleep, or he could have been reaching for something, or he was on his cellphone. But there he was," said Brown. "It was just awful. It was just an awful experience."

It is a trucker's job to keep his eyes on the road, but how many of them are taking that job seriously at all times? The KSL Investigators spent a few hours cruising I-15 and discovered all kinds of distractions.

Truckers texting

Like drinking coffee, perfectly legal. Smoking, legal. Eating a corn dog with ketchup, delicious and legal. Taking notes, not a great idea, but legal. Driving with your elbows, definitely a bad idea, but there's no law against it.

But over and over and over again, they caught truckers talking on cellphones. It's not illegal for regular drivers here in Utah, but for semi drivers it's a big no-no.

"In commercial vehicles you're not allowed to talk on a cellphone," said Utah Highway Patrol trooper Matt Garvey. "You can't even hold it to your ear. It can't even be in your hand."

KSL Investigators watched one truck driver repeatedly looking into his lap for more than a minute and a half. In his hand was a cellphone. Even more disturbing is what he was hauling.

"He's basically carrying a big ol' fireball," said trooper Garvey.

A quick search of the company name on the side of his 18-wheeler shows he's licensed to carry hazmat-rated materials, most likely gasoline.

Despite federal law, distracted truckers caught on tape with cellphones

'Stuff we want to stop'

KSL Investigators also caught another semi driver hauling a mobile home on tape with phone visibly in hand for nearly two minutes. They weren't sure whether he was texting, emailing, tweeting, facebooking, instagramming or snapchatting … but his full attention was definitely not on the road.

"This is the kind of stuff we want to stop right there," Garvey said after seeing the video.

In the past five years there have been more than 8,000 crashes involving semis in Utah, and 245 of those list distracted driving as a cause. Crash reports show in dozens of the accidents, a semi driver was distracted while looking at or talking on a cellphone.

The problem is, it's close to impossible for the Highway Patrol to catch. First, there's just one trooper per car, making it difficult for a trooper who is driving to see inside the cab of a semi. Second, semi drivers aren't stupid.

"It's actually a lot harder to see it when you're in a patrol vehicle because they can see the patrol vehicle and they kind of fix their ways," said Garvey.

Heavy fines for drivers caught breaking the law

The majority of semi drivers KSL Investigators saw were obeying the law. However, there were still dozens of drivers who were caught on tape breaking the law, and the fines are hefty: $2,750 for truckers and up to $11,000 for companies that allow their drivers to use hand-held cellphones.

KSL Investigators tried to speak with the local companies of the drivers they caught on tape, but those companies declined to comment.

As for Lacinda Brown, she never made it to Provo for her niece's graduation.

"When I saw that semi there, I thought my life was over," said Brown. "I thought I was dead."

Instead, she spent the next several weeks in the hospital with a crushed spine.

"I was lucky I wasn't paralyzed," said Brown.

Court records show the case against the semi driver who hit her was dismissed. His company says he was distracted by windshield wipers. It just goes to show whether it's windshield wipers, eating, drinking, talking or using your cellphone for any reason at all … taking your eyes off the road for just seconds can have serious consequences.

"You get into 80,000-pound semis and 129,000-pound semis pulling two trailers, these heavy loads, they're not just dangerous, they're deadly," said Garvey.

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Mike Headrick

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