Long-haul drivers' method of remote steering creating road hazard

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SALT LAKE CITY -- There's a method of steering a big truck that's so obscure you've probably never heard of it, but it's considered dangerous enough to be banned in Utah and several other states. A KSL investigation shows it happens a lot, possibly as a matter of routine.

The issue involves long loads like giant windmill blades. "Blade Runners" used to be rare, but the wind farm industry is booming, and some drivers are literally steering two vehicles at the same time.

We watched a parade of five windmill blades in Clearfield. On tight turns, the rear end of each trailer was actually being steered by remote control by the pilot driver in the escort vehicle following the trailer.

Randy Sorenson, president of the Professional Escort Vehicle Operators Association, has used his video camera to document double driving all over the country. "We're jeopardizing the public safety," he said.

To steer the rear axle of the trailer in front of them, the escort drivers push buttons on a TV-style remote control. "And they're using people that are untrained, unqualified to do this," Sorenson said.

If an extra long trailer is not steered and is simply pulled through a tight turn, it will cut the corner, which could be disastrous. A steerable rear axle allows the trailer to swing wide enough to make the turn.

Traditionally, a so-called "tillerman" rides or walks at the rear end and steers it through a tight turn. On straight-aways, tillermen aren't needed. So, for a few tight turns on a long trip, trucking companies save money if the escort driver doubles up as a remote-control tillerman.

"Well, now you're diverting attention of what that person is supposed to be doing," Sorenson said. He trains escort drivers around the country. He says their job is to warn the public and maneuver to keep other drivers out of danger.

In Provo, Sorenson videotaped a pilot vehicle that should have stayed right to block traffic from passing on the right. "Instead, the pilot car went to the left, because he's focused on helping the driver steer that trailer," Sorenson said.

A similar mistake led to an accident in Texas, Sorenson says. A tanker truck tried to pass on the right and plowed into a windmill blade.

Utah is one of a few states that bans pilot-escort drivers from tillerman duties.

"We believe that the role of a pilot car is of critical importance, that they are there to warn oncoming traffic," said Richard Clasby, director of the Utah Department of Transportation's Motor Carrier Division.

An out-of-state company offered the Clearfield job to one escort driver, but she turned it down. "You cannot do two jobs at one time. You can't control traffic and steer a load," she said.

Yet, numerous drivers told us it's done routinely.

"I don't do it. It's not safe, and it's against regulations too," said Lynn Edlis, owner of Lynn's Pilot Car.

Debby Kallinikos with BW Insurance insures escort drivers around the country. She's turned down many for tillerman insurance because it's illegal. "They just take the chance that they're not going to get caught and fined," she said.

We told Clearfield police and the highway patrol about this. They were surprised and said they would look into it.

A trucking industry spokesman told us regulations across the country are highly confused and need reform, but he says if regulations are too strict it will be too costly.

E-mail: jhollenhorst@ksl.com


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