Distracted driving is a serious issue, and ironically, some built-in safety notifications can interfere with a driver's focus. But recent tech developments are here to help you stay on top of safety and vehicle settings.  - Photo: GETTYIMAGES/metamorworks

Distracted driving is a serious issue, and ironically, some built-in safety notifications can interfere with a driver's focus. But recent tech developments are here to help you stay on top of safety and vehicle settings. 

Photo: GETTYIMAGES/metamorworks

The statistics are both staggering and sobering.

The National Safety Council estimates that in 2020, 42,060 people died in crashes, the largest number of motor vehicle deaths in 13 years. However, vehicle miles traveled fell 13% compared to 2019. This translates to a per-mile death rate that increased to 1.49 deaths per 100 million miles traveled, up a staggering 24% from 2019.

The consequences for fleets: Motor vehicle deaths remain the leading cause of workplace death, causing $72 billion to employers, a 52% increase since 2013. Meanwhile, commercial insurance premiums have increased 18% over the last five years.

In this context, fleet operators, technology providers, and safety stakeholders gathered virtually September 21-23 for the 2021 Fleet Safety Experience.

“Last year had the highest year-over-year increase in crash fatalities in the last 96 years, and that's incredible,” said Yoav Banin, chief product officer for Nauto, in a seminar on distracted driving.

These four themes emerged in the seminars, keynote addresses, and networking roundtables. Speakers offered solutions on how fleets can avoid adding to these numbers.

1. Distracted driving is an addiction — and should be treated as such.

Drivers face a growing number of distractions as vehicles are engineered with an increasing number of in-vehicle touchpoints. While those need to be managed, the primary culprit is still the smartphone. And the problem is getting worse.

In his seminar, CJ Meurell, cofounder and chief revenue officer of Motion Intelligence, brought up the fact that younger drivers — “digital natives” — have higher accident rates than older drivers. “These days, we are using more mobile devices and using them earlier. And therefore, the addiction becomes greater and greater,” he said.

Meurell completed a recent study that analyzed a pool of technicians and tradespeople who drove a vehicle to get to their job sites. Over the course of three years, the study found that young drivers entering the workforce to those in their mid-30s had three times more accidents than drivers from their mid-30s to retirement age.

To a large extent, blame dopamine, a neurochemical that releases when we respond to the pings from our phones. Like a powerful drug, dopamine should be viewed through the lens of addiction. There is even a name for the fear of being detached from a phone — nomophobia — and it is recognized as a mental disorder. Understanding these powerful forces, we can better combat distracted driving, safety advocates say.

Fleets need to take this into consideration when introducing new safety initiatives, said Clay Skelton, president of OrigoSafeDriver in the distracted driving seminar. “Their (organization’s) first thought is that implementing a safety system is going to be the same as a simple seatbelt campaign,” he said. “But it's not, because with seatbelts, you're not fighting addiction. They don't realize how powerful and addictive dopamine is.”

Skelton said fleets must “fight technology addiction with technology.”

Katie Franssen, principal Safety, Health, and Environmental leader, Roche Diagnostics -

Katie Franssen, principal Safety, Health, and Environmental leader, Roche Diagnostics

Katie Franssen, principal Safety, Health, and Environmental (SHE) leader for Roche Diagnostics, said that distracted driving is her fleet’s biggest safety challenge. During the fleet manager’s roundtable, she cited statistics that the average attention span was about 15 seconds in 2000 but has dropped to eight seconds today.

Roche allows its drivers hands-free communication, but strongly recommends against it. Franssen stresses interacting with drivers through emails over texts, which minimizes the urge to respond while driving. “We’re helping our business leaders rethink their strategies to enable drivers to not pick up the phone while they’re driving,” she said.

Meurell referenced fleet policies that range from a complete ban on phone use to allowing hands-free calls and various interactions with apps. He advocates for preventing unsafe behavior and promoting safe connectivity. “Telling drivers that they can't use their phones is, in a lot of cases, unrealistic,” he said.

Regardless of the specific rules, Meurell stressed the need to reinforce them. “You need to set the policy, publish the policy, and support the policy, and make sure that the drivers understand the repercussions if they break the rules,” he said.

Skelton said that administrators and office personnel often don’t realize how they’re adding to their drivers’ distraction. He suggests conducting ride-alongs with drivers to understand how they interact and conduct business while on the road. “You'll be surprised to learn how many things that you do virtually that are distracting your drivers and disrupting their workflow,” he said.

2. In-vehicle safety systems must be managed to avoid contributing to distraction — and negating the benefits of the technology.

In addition to increasingly sophisticated infotainment systems, safety systems with visible and audible safety notifications can also lead to distraction.

Skelton brought up the irony of a front collision warning system that delivers an audible tone as well as a flashing icon in the instrument panel. “The very first thing I do is look at that flashing light,” he said.

Drivers do have the ability to turn these systems off. But when that happens, especially when someone else is in the car, it may not be obvious to the new driver. “If a driver is used to adaptive cruise control and they get into a car without it, they’re liable to run into the back of another car,” said Skelton.

To minimize technology distraction, Michelle Calloway, director, OnStar Business Solutions at General Motors, said OnStar is working to use natural voice recognition to not only manage phone calls but also interact with in-vehicle apps. “We’re striving to create seamless embedded technologies that won’t interfere with the primary function of safe driving,” she said in the distracted driving seminar. 

Calloway also said that drivers have the ability to turn off Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) features. For this reason, OnStar is rolling out a new feature that alerts fleet managers when a driver has changed any settings.

Fleets using in-vehicle active coaching technology report marked improvements in driver behaviors. But the precision of the artificial intelligence (AI) is critical, and the systems may require fine tuning, or drivers will be subjected to “alert fatigue.”

“Drivers can get annoyed and ignore a system that keeps beeping, or in the worst case obstruct and cancel the device,” said Banin. “You’ve got to really thread the needle to make sure that when you are sounding an alert, it matters.”

The same reasoning goes for those managing the alerts. “We started with the standard thresholds, (which can be) dialed up or dialed back,” said Jim Liverseed, fleet manager for Tennant Co.

Jim Liverseed, fleet manager, Tennant Co. -

Jim Liverseed, fleet manager, Tennant Co.

“I don't necessarily want to get an email or a text message every time one of my drivers exceeds the posted speed limit by 1 mile per hour,” he said during the fleet manager’s roundtable. “I want to limit those alerts and notifications to be ones that I would act on, because if you don’t (take immediate action with the driver) they become ignorable, and you may miss one that's pretty egregious.”

All minor incidences are still being captured and logged and they're feeding into their driver scores, said Liverseed. “The big events, the dangerous or illegal behaviors, are flagged immediately, and we’re taking action on them, often in real time.”

3. Automation is breeding driver complacency.

In the keynote address, Rob Molloy, director of the Office of Highway Safety at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), cited the research the board has done on how new levels of vehicle automation are affecting driving performance. “We found that when a trusted automation system is being used, people quickly become complacent and fail to do what they need to do,” he said.

Molloy cited a crash in 2018 in which a Tesla Model X was on autopilot and killed the driver. The driver was playing a game on his phone leading up to the crash. The NTSB investigation found that the vehicle failed to maintain its lane and failed to detect a hazard, while the system failed to alert the driver to keep his hands on the wheel.

“What concerns me about this crash is it's an example of trying to automate so that drivers are free to do other things — and they will do other things,” he said. “And in this case, they were playing a game and paid no attention to what this imperfect automation system did.”

“We're finding right now that these systems are being allowed to develop with very little guidance on safety to prevent their abuse,” he added.

Katie Keeton, fleet manager, Siemens -

Katie Keeton, fleet manager, Siemens

Katie Keeton, fleet manager for Siemens, offered a straightforward solution: “We decided to not make (autopilot and similar systems) an available option for our drivers,” she said in a seminar on EV safety. “We have to deal with the fact that in the future vehicles will be able to drive themselves. There's a lot of work that needs to go into that. But we aren't quite ready to allow our drivers to summon their cars, and whatever implications that come with that.”

4. With an aging driver population, ergonomics comes into focus.

An aging workforce is bringing ergonomics — understanding interactions among humans and machines — into greater focus, particularly for spec’ing work vehicles and upfits.

In a seminar on the subject, Andrew Merryweather, associate professor at University of Utah and director of the university’s ergonomics and safety program, brought up the scope of the problem and challenges to address them.

Merryweather pointed to data showing that falls and overexertion represent the first and third most common reason for workers being treated in a hospital emergency room, followed by injuries to motor-vehicle occupants.

While the problem is known overall, “Because of the huge variety of occupations using vehicles for work, it’s challenging to specifically identify workplace injuries and illnesses and their relationship to work vehicles,” he said.

Merryweather recommended that fleets conduct a fleet hazard analysis, asking questions around what can go wrong; what the consequences are; how the hazard could arise; what other contributing factors are in play; and how likely is it that the hazard will occur.

“Prioritize your resources based on the hazard severity and the likelihood of exposure,” he said. “For example, if your employees are jumping off a vehicle because the task requires access that isn’t possible from the ground, figure out how to reduce the need by considering tool storage options that decrease this exposure.”

The next steps are to remove the hazards in vehicle spec’ing, upfits, and retrofits. Merryweather also recommended working with an upfitter to spec solutions specifically on ergonomics concerns.

Then, fleets managers should measure their organization’s progress over time. Fleets should talk to their insurance agents regarding their E-Mod (Experience Modification) rates to see if they lower insurance premiums. “Their expertise can aid in your process to become a safer and healthier place for your employees,” he said.

Among the National Transportation Safety Board’s “Most Wanted” list of recommendations to help make transportation safer:

  • Implement first-offender interlock laws
  • Lower the threshold of a blood alcohol content limit to .05
  • Call for cell phone manufacturer lockout technology
  • Add forward collision warning systems as standard equipment on all vehicles
  • Implement speed-limiting technology for all vehicles
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