What Utility Fleets Can Do to Curb Distracted Driving Incidents
Your company has clearly communicated its distracted driving policy to all employees. And the safety department is doing its part by screening at-risk drivers, providing consistent driver training and building awareness throughout the organization of the dangers of distracted driving. But when employees are out on the road, how can management ensure that drivers actually comply with the policy – to protect their own lives, the public and your utility’s reputation and bottom line?
That’s where your fleet department can make a difference. How? By equipping vehicles with technologies that counteract a driver’s impulse to read a text message or scroll through social media feeds on their phone while driving – even when they know it’s the wrong thing to do.
All It Takes is One Time
No one is immune. Even the best, most conscientious drivers can succumb to the temptation to look at their smartphone while driving, at least every now and then.
Think about it. You’re driving a service truck through a residential area when you hear your phone buzzing in the console, notifying you of a text message. Because you know better, your initial instinct is to ignore the sound and keep focused on the road ahead. But then a few seconds later you hear the phone buzz again … and again.
Now you’re curious. Who could that be?
It’s been a long day, and you’re exhausted. You start justifying to yourself: I’m going pretty slow right now and there’s not much traffic; it won’t hurt to take a quick look.
You take your eyes off the road for what you think will only be a second. But by the time you look up from your phone, you see that a boy on a bicycle has darted out from behind a vehicle parked along the street, right in front of your truck. You slam on the brakes, but there’s not enough time to stop before your truck hits him.
You could be a great driver, day in and day out, but one lapse in judgment and everything changes for you – and for the victim’s family and your employer. And because the truck displays your utility’s logo on it, the press coverage causes a public relations firestorm, while your employer is sure to face a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
Addicted to Distraction
A survey commissioned by AT&T and Dr. David Greenfield, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, found that while over 90 percent of drivers say they know texting and driving is dangerous, many rationalize their texting-and-driving behavior – a classic sign of addiction. And three in four people surveyed admitted to at least glancing at their phones while behind the wheel.
So, if drivers know that texting, checking email or scrolling through social media feeds while driving is hazardous – and illegal in most states – why do far too many drivers still do it? What makes the temptation so hard to resist?
According to Dr. Greenfield, the answer comes down to addiction. “We compulsively check our phones because every time we get an update through text, email or social media, we experience an elevation of dopamine, which is a neurochemical in the brain that makes us feel happy,” Greenfield said in a statement announcing the AT&T study. “If that desire for a dopamine fix leads us to check our phones while we’re driving, a simple text can turn deadly.”
Amy Dobrikova, president of Intelligent Fleet Solutions (www.intelligent-fleet.com), a fleet consulting firm based in Jacksonville, Fla., refers to distracted driving as “the new DUI,” not only because it impairs your ability to drive but also because it’s the result of an addiction that causes you to think, “I can handle this,” much like a drunk driver, when engaging in risky driving behavior.
How Fleet Can Help
What can you do in fleet to help curb distracted driving incidents in your company?
“As a fleet manager, one area I have influence over [when it comes to reducing distracted driving incidents] is specifying new vehicles with available driver-assist technologies, such as reverse sensors and cameras, adaptive cruise control and hands-free Bluetooth connectivity for communications,” said Dale Collins, fleet services supervisor for Fairfax County Water Authority in Fairfax, Va. “As technology advances become more mainstream, we’ll be able to bring additional driver aids, like collision avoidance systems, blind-spot detection and lane-keeping assist.”
The idea here is that even if the driver gets distracted, the vehicle won’t. That’s because it’s equipped with technology that can respond and avoid imminent danger, usually much faster than a human driver could.
But while automated driving technologies offer the promise of curbing the consequences of distracted driving, they aren’t yet foolproof, as the highly publicized fatal collision earlier this year involving a Tesla Model S on Autopilot demonstrated. It has been widely reported that the driver was distracted and never took over control of the vehicle to apply the brakes before it slammed into the side of a box truck.
“There are many advances in technology being applied to vehicles that are helping fleets achieve improvements in safety and in most every other area imaginable,” Collins said. “Yet, as with any new technology, there can be a bit of trepidation with an operator’s fear of losing control, and the risk of unintended circumstances, where operators think, ‘I’ll just rely on the technology to do it all for me.’”
But what if you could equip the vehicle in a way that prevents drivers from being tempted to pick up the phone in the first place?
For example, Dobrikova recommends installing technology that disables certain functions of the phone while the vehicle is in motion, taking the possibility of phone distraction completely out of the hands of drivers.
“I always like to say that people are human, and no matter what policy is out there, people are going to break the rules,” she said. “I like having solutions that prevent the problem to begin with.”
The product Dobrikova is using with some of her fleet clients is DrivePROTECT from Cellcontrol (www.cellcontrol.com), a Baton Rouge, La.-based firm that develops technology to stop distracted driving in passenger and commercial vehicles.
“A device is placed inside the vehicle behind the rearview mirror, which senses the vehicle’s acceleration,” Dobrikova explained. “While the vehicle is moving, the system sends a Bluetooth signal to the phone to go into safe mode. But when they’re at a stoplight or a stop sign, drivers can still access their phone.”
Dobrikova said that fleet or safety administrators can customize the Cellcontrol system to allow for certain types of calls or apps to run – such as for navigation or music – while shutting down all other functions. “This way, if the fleet wants to be able to say, ‘Dispatch needs to call you at any time,’ you can set up the system to allow dispatch to call. Or, if you want drivers to have a route optimization app that they need to open, but they don’t need to be on Facebook, you can set it up that way as well. The fleet can decide what the parameters will be and what they’re going to allow for the phone usage.”
The Bottom Line
It’s one thing to have a strict distracted driving policy; it’s entirely another to ensure that drivers actually comply with that policy when they’re out in the field. That requires accountability – and technology can help. As Dobrikova put it, “I’m sure everybody will admit to being distracted on their phone at least one time in their life. If we eliminate that risk and are held accountable, we can prevent distracted driving from happening in the first place.”
Distracted Driving By the Numbers
• Text messaging increases your crash risk by 23 times. -Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI)
• Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting, which is roughly equivalent to covering the length of a football field blindfolded when traveling 55 mph. -VTTI
• Nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involved some form of driver inattention within three seconds before the event. -National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
• Engaging in visual-manual subtasks associated with the use of hand-held phones and other mobile devices – such as reaching for a phone, dialing and texting – increases the risk of getting into a crash by three times. -VTTI
• In 2013, 3,154 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers and approximately 424,000 people were injured. -NHTSA