Roadway fatalities are up since the pandemic, even though overall traffic is down. Distracted driving, including texting, is one cause for concern. Get more insight at the 2021 Fleet Safety Experience with actionable insights to foster a safer fleet. - Photo: Virginia Department of Transportation via Flickr

Roadway fatalities are up since the pandemic, even though overall traffic is down. Distracted driving, including texting, is one cause for concern. Get more insight at the 2021 Fleet Safety Experience with actionable insights to foster a safer fleet.

Photo: Virginia Department of Transportation via Flickr

Texting while driving — we all know it’s wrong, and yet we admit to still doing it. Why? Dopamine plays a part.

“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,” said Dr. David Greenfield, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. “If that desire for a dopamine fix leads us to check our phones while we’re driving, a simple text can turn deadly.”

AT&T commissioned research in 2014 led by Dr. Greenfield, who is also assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. 

Greenfield’s study found that 75% of respondents admitted to glancing at their phones while driving — with 30% doing so out of habit. Yet only 6% of those surveyed believe they’re actually addicted.

Dopamine is also partly to blame for addictive behaviors surrounding drugs and alcohol, gambling, eating, and shopping. Like a powerful drug, when dopamine is viewed through the lens of addiction, we can better understand the powerful forces that cause distracted driving.

Distracted driving becomes even more urgent in light of the alarming scope and rate of crashes since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), roadway deaths in 2020 in the U.S. totaled 38,680. That’s up 7.2% from 2019 — the largest number of fatalities in 14 years.

This negative trend, unfortunately, is continuing. Traffic deaths in the first quarter of 2021 were up 10.5% compared to the first quarter of 2020, a non-Covid comparison. And deaths for the first six months of 2021 were 21,450 — up an eye-popping 17% from 2019. If that weren’t alarming enough, when factoring vehicle miles traveled, deaths were up 24% compared to 2019.

NHTSA cites reckless behavior — higher incidences of speeding and drunk driving and less seatbelt wearing — as a root cause. Contextualizing this among stories of irresponsible air travelers reveals the dark corners of our slow emergence from the Covid pandemic.

For fleet operators, these powerful forces and risk factors are multiplied across an entire fleet. So where do we go from here?

Through keynote addresses, panel discussions, and networking roundtables, the virtual 2021 Fleet Safety Experience (FSE) will deliver actionable insights to foster safer fleets. FSE convenes online Sept. 21-23 with seminars available on demand after that.

Clay Skelton, president of OrigoSafeDriver, has a take on dopamine for fleets. He contends it’s at the core of a sometimes-dangerous feedback loop often associated with social media addiction. “Fleets should accept that the research has been done … and we’re not educating ourselves out of this problem,” he said. 

For Skelton, “Restricting the ability to be distracted is the path forward.” Skelton will elaborate on this message on an FSE panel that will provide insights and solutions into distracted driving. The panel also includes Michelle Calloway from OnStar and Yoav Banin from Nauto.

To Skelton’s point, new tech solutions have indeed proven effective in curbing distracted driving. For fleets, a holistic approach also includes ways to measure baseline risks and implementing effective driver coaching. The panel will delve into these solutions.

In addition to distracted driving, FSE education will offer solutions in other aspects of fleet safety. One seminar will address how operators of non-CDL fleets can adopt new training methods and safety technologies. Another tackles how to educate drivers on electric vehicle safety.

In Tuesday’s Fleet Manager’s Roundtable session, past Fleet Safety Award winner Katie Franssen of Roche Diagnostics will be joined by fleet manager finalists for the 2021 award. The group will share their challenges and triumphs to create and manage safer fleets.

The opening keynote will be presented by Rob Molloy, director of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Office of Highway Safety. Molloy will walk attendees through data and investigations of actual medium- and heavy-duty truck crashes to determine the many factors that may have contributed to these crashes.

The closing keynote, “How Will the Truck of the Future Enhance Road Safety?” is a panel discussion led by David Braunstein of Together for Safer Roads along with two fleet operators, Jim Olson of Republic Services and Keith Kerman of New York City’s DCAS fleet.

The discussion centers on the new frontier of innovations and systems to keep drivers safe behind the wheel, from improved cab designs and collision avoidance systems to interventions addressing driver visibility and better infrastructure planning.

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