New distracted driving laws have passed with relative ease in 39 states. Nationally, the U.S. Department of Transportation finalized a rule in 2011 prohibiting four million commercial truck and bus drivers from using hand-held cell phones while operating vehicles. Individual violators can be fined and lose their licenses, and companies employing such drivers can be penalized up to $11,000 per violation.
Efforts have also included broader awareness-raising initiatives, including the user-friendly Distraction.gov website. The “educate and enforce” strategy ramped up further in June 2012, when U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a comprehensive “Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving” that includes pressuring the remaining 11 states to enact distracted driving laws, partnering with driver education professionals to reach younger drivers, and other tactics. Tellingly, the blueprint was coupled with the announcement of $2.4 million in federal funding to expand a “Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other” pilot enforcement campaign operating in California and Delaware.
The impact of this activity will vary. Many companies with large commercial fleets already have policies as stringent as any governmental regulations. However, new rules, stricter enforcement, and more vigorous awareness-raising may help turn distracted driving “best practices” into standard practices.
A call for a more systemic approach
Individuals using hand-held phones are the most visible example of distracted driving, but the problem is more complex. As with any safety or health issue, the most effective approach involves going beyond the individual worker and addressing the work environment.
In February 2012, NHTSA demonstrated this by publishing guidelines encouraging vehicle manufacturers to voluntarily minimize the visual-manual distraction potential of installed devices. Future guidelines will address portable and aftermarket devices and auditory-vocal interfaces.
Although these guidelines are not radically different from existing Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers best practices, they reinforce an important point: We can’t just surround drivers with potential distractions and then blame them for bad choices; we should also try to make vehicles distraction-free environments.
The guidelines offer insights for safety and fleet management professionals in assessing and mitigating in-vehicle risks. For example, they recommend that “unreasonably distracting” devices be disabled unless the vehicle is not running or is in a fully braked, park/neutral state. Factors that make a device distracting include:
Displaying images or video not related to driving
Displaying automatically scrolling text
Requiring manual text entry of more than six button or key presses during a single task
Requiring reading more than 30 characters of text
The fundamental goal: to ensure that no while-driving task requires a single glance away from the road of more than two seconds or cumulative time glancing away of more than 12 seconds.
You can mine the 177-page publication for additional insights by downloading the PDF www.nhtsa.gov/staticfiles/rulemaking/pdf/Distraction_NPFG-02162012.pdf.
But having illustrated one aspect of a more system-based approach to distracted driving, let’s hone in on a few others that are relevant for OHS and fleet management professionals.
Driving as a system: Four keys to prevent distractions
For companies with regular fleets, driving is innately systemic, involving the interrelation of vehicles, drivers, and routing and scheduling processes at the very least. As with leading OHS programs, top-performing fleets have a team of professionals, and ultimately an entire culture, attending to every component in the system closely and frequently. Four components are especially critical to reducing the risk of distracted driving:
Training. DOT training is required for commercial drivers, and some companies go well beyond that. Even companies that do not operate commercially often offer — and should offer — appropriate driver training, including how to identify and avoid distractions. From a systems standpoint, acknowledging that some distractions are inevitable, we should also look at bolstering defensive driving practices that can prevent a momentary distraction from becoming an accident.
Driver health and wellness. Three types of distraction impair driving: visual, manual and cognitive. With the latter, it’s important not to ignore factors that make it harder to concentrate, including fatigue, stress and poor health. Promoting health and wellness, and helping drivers recognize and combat risk factors, has benefits far beyond better driving attentiveness. For commercial drivers, a high-risk health group, a good wellness/disease management program can provide exceptional return on investment by reducing healthcare and other costs.
Equipment and policy. As pointed out earlier, rather than simply relying on drivers to resist distractions, much can be done to remove distractions from the driving environment and also clarify, monitor and enforce policies defining distracted driving.
Contextual factors. It can be tempting to see distracted driving as purely “bad personal choice.” Usually, if we dig deeper, we find that such “choices” don’t arise out of thin air, and there are contributing factors we can address to make those choices less likely. One obvious place to look is scheduling. If timetables are too rigorous, you may create situations where drivers feel they have to skip breaks and multi-task while they drive.
That’s just a quick overview of how different elements in a driving system can increase or decrease the risk of distracted driving. The point is that a more system-based approach will ensure that you identify and address risk factors beyond reaching for a hand-held cell phone. I’ll also add that this is an issue every OHS professional should look at, whether your company has a commercial fleet or not. After all, the vast majority of employees drive vehicles every day — and we will all be safer, healthier, and less stressed out, if we take “distracted driving” off the road.