Distracted Driving: an Issue for Fleet Safety

Safety probably ranks at the top of a utility fleet manager’s priorities and concerns.

1109up Illume

By Daniel Ross

Safety probably ranks at the top of a utility fleet manager’s priorities and concerns. Telematics and fleet management solutions provide insight to monitoring the vehicle and a driver’s behavior as it relates to the vehicle. Some tools, for example, can track when vehicles travel at excessive speeds or when drivers make erratic moves such as sudden braking. But, what about the driver’s action behind the wheel that in-vehicle systems don’t detect—primarily cell phone use, which might violate corporate policy and local, state or federal law?

Distracted driving encompasses multiple driver behaviors—eating or drinking, reading, grooming or even changing the radio station. But, none has generated so many statistics and found its way into the headlines like cell phone use, and, in particular, texting.

Distracted driving diverts the attention of the driver in three ways:

  • Visual—taking eyes off the road,
  • Manual—taking hands off the wheel, and
  • Cognitive—taking mind off driving.

The statistics and research behind the dangers cell phone use poses while driving are particularly compelling. The National Highway Transportation Safety Association (NHTSA) has determined that using a cell phone while driving increases the chances of an accident by 400 percent; it is also the cause of 23 percent of all vehicle crashes, which killed nearly 6,000 people and injured 500,000 in 2009.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has deemed cell phone use while driving a violation of safety regulations in the workplace and is increasing fines from $2,750 for the first occurrence to $11,000. Today, nearly 35 states have laws regarding cell phone use behind the wheel.

Pressure to Stay Connected

Many workers often feel they have no choice but to use cell phones to communicate with offices and dispatchers. And, the desire to increase productivity and efficiency created by the pressures of tight scheduling and unforeseen delays make using cellphones while driving more and more tempting.

The National Safety Council (NSC) reports, however, that many employers experience increases in productivity once a distracted driving policy is put in place. According to an NSC report, “Employers that have already passed cell phone policies have found that employees find ways to maintain productivity and accessibility after they stop using the phone while driving, including better time management and changing old habits for new ones. Rarely does productivity actually decrease.”

The Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS) recently conducted an extensive study on the effectiveness of company cell phone bans. The year-long benchmarking study examined fleets from 45 leading companies across a range of industries, including telecommunications and oil and gas. The companies include 27 in the Fortune 500 and operate a combined fleet of over 400,000 vehicles.

The study found that the safest and most productive fleets are those that are more likely to have a total ban on mobile phone use while driving. The top safety performers in the group also had strict policies that called for the termination of drivers who violated the policy.

Liability a Concern

Safety is certainly the most compelling reason to put cell phone usage policies in place, but what about exposure to liability and worker’s compensation claims? A 2009 verdict against Holmes Transport awarded $18 million to the plaintiff who sustained serious brain injury after being struck by an 18-wheel truck being driven by a Holmes employee. The judge found that at the time of the accident the driver had opened his cell phone and was checking it for text messages.

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The evidence for employers to institute detailed “no texting or cell phone use while driving” policies is clear. The NETS study offers a number of suggestions when constructing a corporate mobile device policy:

  • Make sure there is a policy, not a general guideline, as guidelines are typically interpreted as suggestions and are more difficult to enforce;
  • Make sure the policy language is clear, for example, requiring drivers to be completely stopped in a safe place before accessing any electronic devices; and
  • Make sure contractors abide by the same rules as employees.

Make sure employees know the policy will be enforced. Make it known that if an employee violates the policy, he or she will be terminated.

Enforcement is Key

Enforcement is the final component of any cell phone policy. It is here that technology can play a role. There are a number of low-cost and easy-to-use software solutions that greatly manage and control cell phone use. The iZup from Illume Software, for example, automatically sends phone calls to voicemail while vehicles are in motion and holds data interactions, including text messages, until the product determines the trip is completed. iZup also provides the ability to prioritize a list of contacts to keep employees in touch with the most important people—such as dispatchers, supervisors and emergency services—while driving.

Distracted driving is an issue that is not going away soon. Research continues to show that more and more companies are putting cell phone usage policies in place. Implementing a simple software solution to enforce these policies goes a long way towards compliance.

About the author: Daniel Ross is chief executive officer of Illume Software, a Boston-based mobile software company that offers responsible solutions to cell-phone related distracted driving.

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