Photo: Planet Studio

Photo: Planet Studio

Driver safety and cost containment are the top two priorities of most fleets, with the state of the economy typically dictating which of the two will be the No.1 priority for fleets. During the COVID-19 pandemic, driver safety concerns, such as safety protocols to protect employees from contagion are top of mind for most fleet professionals.

In addition, fleet managers are continually examining a wide range of initiatives to reduce the frequency of accidents, which run the gamut from vehicle selection to implementing advanced driver-assistance safety technology to innovative driver training programs. 

Fleet safety is a dynamic segment of fleet management and based on conversations with fleet managers in a variety of industries, following is part one in a three part series that details 15 trends currently impacting most commercial fleets. Also available online are part two and part three of the series.

Trend 1: Reassessing Safety Training 

The concern about COVID-19 contagion has reduced in-person driver safety training. What was once normal in the pre-pandemic era is today no longer an acceptable practice. For instance, you can no longer crowd 30 people in a conference room for safety training. Social distancing is a new consideration when deciding between online versus in-person safety training. 

“Fleets are falling behind in their in-person behind-the-wheel driver safety training. Driving Dynamics now offers a ‘no contact’ behind-the-wheel training program so companies can be compliant with their training while protecting their drivers from COVID-19,” said Debbie Lodge-Balestra, vice president, client relations for Driving Dynamics. “The class consists of two parts, a virtual classroom session conducted in either Zoom or WebEx and a behind-the-wheel training session where the student is alone in their own vehicle and all communication from the coaches is done over the FM radio station.” 

Trend 2: Vehicle Safety Technology

One of the first steps to create a safer fleet starts with the initial vehicle selection. 

“Fleet professionals need to have a detailed understanding of the unique needs of their fleet, both functional and safety, in order to make the best vehicle selection. Selecting the right combination of services to address the safety and risk needs continues to be a top focus,” said Eliot Bensel, vice president of account development for Element Fleet Management. “Never before has there been such a comprehensive assortment of risk and safety programs available to fleet professionals. Everything from artificial intelligence, enhanced analytics, telematics, camera inputs, predictive analytics to continuous MVR monitoring, immersive safety modules, and event-based remediation tools. The challenge is identifying which product or group of products offer the best return on investment.”

The ongoing migration by OEMs to incorporate more onboard safety equipment has progressed beyond upper trim level sedans and are now offered in many work trucks. “The OEMs are putting a number of safety items in trucks to help keep driver and truck safe, which, in turn, reduces insurance costs,” said Brian Tabel, executive director of marketing at Isuzu Commercial Truck of America.

However, the process to determine what safety equipment to utilize by a fleet involves consideration of a number of different variables. 

“If the vehicles in your fleet offer advanced safety technology, should you make the investment to have this technology included with these vehicles?” said Phil Moser, associate director of global driver safety for Syneos Health.

According to Moser, the following are pros and cons to consider in making these decisions:

  • If a vehicle includes the newest safety technology, will this increase the cost of the vehicle?
  • Will the safety technology reduce the risk of collisions, therefore offsetting the increased cost of vehicles?
  • Will drivers lose their safe driving habits and become too dependent on safety technology?
  • Will organizations face the risk of litigation if they don’t include the latest safety technology with their company vehicles? Will attorneys make a case of negligence if companies decide not to include safety equipment? Could this same case be made if companies decide not to use telematics?  

Today’s fleet vehicles offer a range of safety features on the newer models – some standard, some available as options. In the past, OEMs first introduced safety equipment on retail models, but today these safety devices have now expanded to vehicles traditionally acquired by commercial fleets.

“The maturing of automation and advanced driver-assistance systems are already seeing increasing availability of semi-autonomous and advanced driver-assistance features in passenger vehicles,” said David Braunstein, president of Together for Safer Roads. “The continuing investment and innovation in the sensors and software that make these systems work well is gathering critical momentum. This is a massive safety opportunity as these systems transition from consumer vehicle segments to commercial vehicles to augment, not replace, driver skills.”

One complication with optional vehicle safety technology is that the desired safety options are sometimes bundled into a larger package that includes options that fleets would not ordinarily order.

“Every year more and more safety technology is available in the new model-years. Unfortunately, some of that technology is grouped with equipment packages that aren’t needed by fleets. With EHS (Environmental, Health & Safety) departments wanting as much safety features as they can get, it isn’t always the most cost-effective for the fleet,” said Bruce Ottogalli, transportation manager for Suez Water NJ. “Drivers need to understand what is in the vehicle and how to use it. They need to be shown the features since reading a 400-page owner’s manual isn’t something that employees really want to do.”

There is a dilemma in deciding how much safety equipment to add to fleet vehicles. “It is great to see the OEMs add more safety devices and programs to new vehicles. We struggle sometimes with how much is too much. Have we added so many safety features that we have allowed our drivers/technicians the time for more distractions, because the feeling is the vehicle is going to correct it?” said David McCauley, North America fleet manager for Service Experts LLC. “We are also looking to our upfitters to suggest safety and ergonomic items to our upfits so we can protect the safety of our technicians while working in the vehicle.” 

The risk to the proliferation of safety equipment in fleet vehicles is that it diverts responsibility away from the driver, according to Art Liggio, president/CEO for Driving Dynamics. 

“We are in a period of transition regarding the installation and use of vehicle-related technologies. While the vision for safety using these technologies is very promising, the marketing of these applications, such as ADAS (advanced driver-assistance system), overpromises the results compared to what currently can actually be realized. The messaging also incorrectly implies that today’s drivers have a secondary role in reducing crash rates,” said Liggio.

Increases in vehicle acquisition costs for fleets is another consequence to the proliferation of onboard safety equipment. 

“As newer models are equipped with more and more safety features; they also come at a steep price. Many features are being bundled together these days, which for fleet, might be challenging to manage from a financial standpoint,” said Jen VrMeer, senior manager, operations support/sales operations for BD (Becton Dickinson). “While in general, we all agree that safety features will help keep our drivers safer on the road, we should also take a look at which safety features are most important in saving lives and keeping them from being seriously injured.  Defining the ‘must have’ versus the ‘nice to have’ safety features for your fleet is critical.” 

Trend 3: Telematics and Data Analytics

One way to identify at-risk drivers is by using telematics. GPS-based telematics has come a long way from just being a routing and location solution. Today, it is used in a fleet safety program to minimize risk associated with distracted driving and risky driving behaviors. 

Telematics technology can help fleets modify driver behavior by helping to monitor, identify, and correct the underlying behaviors that lead to increased risk, crashes, and liability exposure. Telematics documents dangerous driving behaviors, such as aggressive driving, hard braking, hard cornering, and sudden lane changes allowing identification of drivers who need coaching or remedial driving skills. 

Telematics can pinpoint the specific driving behaviors that needs to be corrected. Because telematics monitoring is often in near-real-time, fleets can address these driving issues quickly before an incident occurs. Telematics tracks compliance to fleet safety policies and identifies high-risk drivers. In addition, telematics technology is continuing to evolve. For instance, some fleets are now assessing bi-directional video systems with artificial intelligence to improve security and safety. However, even with the installation of telematics devices, drivers still continue to do things they shouldn’t, but now these high-risk drivers can be identified and infractions documented.

Trend 4: Distracted Driving Isn’t Abating

Distracted driving remains the most significant ongoing risk that fleet managers must mitigate since it is the No. 1 cause of preventable fleet accidents. 

Also related to distracted driving is fatigued driving. The reality is that today’s field employees are being pushed to do more with less, contributing to driver fatigue. Fleet managers must develop and implement policies and investigate the use of technologies to minimize in-vehicle distractions.

However, there are often multiple devices in the vehicle – a company cell phone, a personal phone, a navigation device, a company device for billing, etc. The bottom line is there are too many devices in a vehicle that can cause driver distraction. Most companies have a hands-free policy, but with the ease of making and receiving calls and texts, some believe we are losing the battle with driver distraction. Another form of in-cab distraction arises from infotainment systems and other technologies that drivers use while driving. 

While everyone recognizes the danger of distracted driving, there is strong pressure from management and sales to allow use of electronic devices because  their prohibition will impact productivity. 

“A big challenge is controlling the use of screen electronics being used while driving, which create distractions and accidents. This is a touchy area, especially when you want to stop the use of the cell phone altogether while driving but even upper management argues that employees need to able to work on sales calls or teleconferences during long drives,” said one fleet manager who wished to be anonymous.

Trend 5: Managing High-Risk Drivers 

On average, 10% of fleet drivers are responsible for 40% of fleet crashes. Having a fleet safety policy is not enough, you need to consistently enforce it, as well as hold drivers accountable. Many fleets have implemented safety training programs and technology to modify unsafe driving behaviors, such as in-vehicle cameras for driver coaching. 

A key challenge is keeping safety top of mind in a high-turnover environment where driving isn’t the main responsibility of the workforce.

Fleet managers should check motor vehicle records (MVR) and accident histories of every driver in the fleet. This allows you to find a group of drivers who have a high number of moving violations and have been involved in numerous crashes. 

It is important to keep safety visible and top-of-mind not only with your high-risk drivers but with all drivers. It’s critically important to reinforce the message by sending e-mail reminders, safety memos, and discussing safety at company meetings.

About the author
Mike Antich

Mike Antich

Former Editor and Associate Publisher

Mike Antich covered fleet management and remarketing for more than 20 years and was inducted into the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2010 and the Global Fleet of Hal in 2022. He also won the Industry Icon Award, presented jointly by the IARA and NAAA industry associations.

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