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Why Distracted Commercial Truck Driving Remains An Important Issue

We live in a digital age. Information is available anywhere, anytime, and nearly all around us. For anyone with a smartphone, which is most of us, the appeal of being able to access information with ubiquity carries great appeal. In most industries, especially ones where people sit at a desk, device distraction is a simple productivity problem. For truck drivers, it can be a matter of life or death.

It is a reality that in the 21st Century, you will see people driving their vehicles while staring at, or even manipulating, their phone. In too many cases, they may even swerve erratically. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2016 nearly 3,500 road deaths were attributed to distracted driving.

Even more troubling, according to a Travelers’ Insurance company Risk Index report, nearly a quarter of Americans say they use personal technology while operating a motor vehicle. Startingly, nearly half of U.S. workers admitted to engaging in work-related activities while driving, which includes emails and texts as well as calls.

All of this is despite the fact that such behavior is illegal in most states. Of course, this holds true for interstate truckers no matter what state they are in. Yet it isn’t difficult for someone who has become complacent in their stellar safety record to be lulled into responding to that text just this one time.

Obviously, distracted driving is not a new phenomenon. Motor vehicle operators were getting distracted long before the smartphone. Whether it be grabbing a quick bite to eat, messing around with the radio, or putting on makeup – distracted driving has been around for a long, long time. The problem now is that the age of the smartphone has made distracted driving an even more acute problem.

How Technology Solves Its Own Problem

Fortunately, OEMs and vehicle manufacturers are trying to make it easier for truck drivers to control the various functions within the vehicles. Now, phones can be connected into the vehicle’s system. Difficult or unintuitive controls have been reworked or done away with altogether.

Even the source of the distraction – mobile devices themselves – have become a part of the safety solution, with advanced navigation devices, fuel-economy coaching modules, workflow and fleet management systems, and in-cab fleet tracking and communications systems.

While some say the ELD devices are themselves a potential source of distraction, the division of Travelers that completed the risk assessment determined that ELDs have not been a large source of distraction for truck drivers. ELDs do require attention, but generally only when the vehicle is not in motion. When you shift into gear, the ELD considers it on-duty status, so any more interaction is not required until the ELD changes status.

Companies are also coming out with in-cab devices designed to specifically monitor for distracted driving. One company has released a camera-based truck driver status monitor. The monitor checks for distractions, drowsiness, and posture to avoid potential crashes.

The truck drivers condition is monitored by the device and recorded on an SD card. A voiced alert will sound if the device determines the operator is drifting or at risk of a crash. Later, the truck driver and fleet manager can review the driving status, alerts, and view an image of the truck driver when an alert was triggered. These make for great coaching and feedback sessions, especially if it is an ongoing problem.

Finally, the device can relay the truck driver’s condition in real time. This way the fleet manager can warn the truck driver or act right away if there is a potential emergency. As more technology OEMS come out with these products, will we see a big drop in distracted driving-related accidents?

Perhaps, but also perhaps not. Cabs are still increasingly filled with screens, tablets, and other devices necessary to ensure truck drivers are dispatched and routed correctly. And for anyone working in the transportation sector, distractions can be both a costly and deadly problem. And even when it isn’t deadly, it can be very expensive. On-the-job vehicle accidents cost companies more than double the cost of any other type of on-the-job accident. Trucks are assets, after all, and when they aren’t running, they aren’t bringing in revenue for the business.

Addressing it Companywide

One of the best ways to ensure your operators are not driving distracted is to create a comprehensive policy to address distracted driving. Once the policy has been created, it must be properly communicated to employees. Compliance with the policy is essential for it to work. By promoting and enforcing the policy, your fleet can promote safe driving practices.

Fleets must implement a safety strategy that includes distracted driving awareness. Distracted driving training should include a focus on defensive truck driving strategies. Many of these are common sense maneuvers that were standard safety practice long before the age of the smartphone and include everything from driving at safe speeds and being cognizant of following distances for both yourself and the vehicles on the road around you.

Some motor carriers even have a distracted driving day or week of the month where the focus is put on distracted driving. This way it is at front and center of truck drivers’ minds. But beyond truck drivers, senior and mid-level management must be on board as well. The policy must be set and in place and properly communicated companywide. Penalties must also be clearly laid out and understandable.

Successful motor carriers will have created a program but also set expectations. They will have an enforcement guideline already written out and ready to go before the program is even launched. Only by putting a focus on it will fleets realize the safety potential.

State Efforts are Lagging

Unfortunately, it doesn’t help when the states are having problems coming up with their own ways to address distracted driving. Would you believe that 20 states do not have a texting-while-driving ban? Many of them also do not have cell phone bans for teens or new drivers.

The National Safety Council (NSC) is lobbying to have local lawmakers enact comprehensive laws to prevent distracted driving. The NSC believes that too many states have not put safe driving measures at the top of their legislative agenda.

States with the highest number of distracted driving deaths were Texas, California, and Florida. Florida is the only of those three states having not passed any laws governing cell phone use while driving. State rankings for these statistics were created based on official figures provided by the National Highway Traffic Administration and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Another concern is that deaths caused by cell phone use are under reported. In order for a death to be classified because of cell phone use, the cell use must be witnessed by a police officer. It certainly is a sobering report.

Distracted with Daydreaming

While smartphones and devices with screens increasingly grab the lion’s share of our distracted truck driving attention, they are no the only distraction problem truck drivers deal with out there on our nation’s roads. Daydreaming is also a big problem.

In fact, some research has shown that daydreaming, otherwise known as being “lost in thought,” can be just as deadly as cell phone or screen distractions. If you consider the definition of distraction, is any activity that takes your eyes off the road, hands off the wheel, or mind off of the task of safely operating the vehicle. Consider that third one for a moment.

In a ten-year dataset gathered from crash records across the United States showed that being “generally distracted” or “lost in thought” accounted for being the top distraction, with a whopping 62% reporting they were daydreaming when they got into a vehicular accident.

The others included:

  • Cell phone use, whether it be talking, listening, dialing, texting, or surfing the internet;
  • Focusing on an outside person, object, or event;
  • Focusing on other people in the vehicle;
  • Using or reaching for something brought into the vehicle;
  • Eating or drinking;
  • Adjusting audio, climate controls, or other internal vehicle switches, buttons, or knobs.
  • Moving an object within the vehicle;
  • Smoking-related.

While the study looked at distraction among passenger car drivers, these distractions can also be applicable to professional truck drivers. It is important that truck drivers understand how problematic distracted driving can be.

Fortunately, the FMCSA has come out with a Mobile Phone Restrictions Fact Sheet. To get more information on the rules and restrictions associated with mobile phone use and distractions on the road, simply follow this link.

The bottom line is that distracted driving has been a problem for a long time. Whether the distraction is technological in nature or originates in our mind, owner-operators and motor carriers must do everything they can to ensure attention is paid to the road when operators are on the road. Will we see a measurable drop in distracted driving accidents as technology and awareness play a larger role? Only time will tell.

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