Distracted driving is at an all-time high as drivers are increasingly addicted to electronics behind the wheel — while ADAS technology might be making them complacent. And yes, "lunch while driving" is an overlooked distraction.  -  Photo: Canva

Distracted driving is at an all-time high as drivers are increasingly addicted to electronics behind the wheel — while ADAS technology might be making them complacent. And yes, "lunch while driving" is an overlooked distraction.

Photo: Canva

Since the pandemic shutdown, collisions and fatalities have risen to historic levels, driven by spikes in impaired and aggressive driving, as well as electronics distraction.  

A panel at the Fleet Forward Conference in November in Santa Clara, Calif., explored the heightened dangers on today’s roadways and set forth some smart strategies fleet operators can implement to keep drivers safe and improve negative behaviors.

The experts for the “Driving in a World of Distractions, Impairment, and Rage” panel included Phil Moser, director of customer development at Driving Dynamics, Katie Franssen, principal leader for Roche Diagnostics, and Dan Belknap, director of product management at Wheels Donlen.

Moser set the stage with a harrowing picture of the state of driving — and its deadly consequences — on U.S. highways and byways ever since the pandemic lockdown.

“As a nation we should be upset, and it’s not getting any better,” Moser said. “In 2019, there were 36,069 fatalities in the U.S. And in 2020, when we weren’t driving nearly as much, it jumped to 38,006. But most alarming, in 2021, it went to 43,000 — that represents a 16% increase in fatalities from 2019.”

Moreover, noted Moser, in 2021 there were 4.4 million serious injuries involving hospitalizations due to roadway collisions. Essentially, that means that one in 52 licensed drivers in the U.S. were involved in a hospital injury-producing crash in 2021. 

Assessing the Landscape and Reasons

So why do crashes and fatalities continue to climb? The panel concurred that there is a marked difference in the way people are driving post-pandemic. In short, drivers have become more dangerous.

Driving is a skill that people need to work on every time they get behind the wheel. But during lockdown, people simply weren’t getting behind the wheel, and as Moser put it, “driving skills went into the trash.”

Secondly, some drivers developed bad habits during the shutdown, likely due to open roads and pent-up frustration. Aggressive driving and speeding have become the new normal. Finally, there is a malaise.

“People don't seem to care,” said Moser, “it’s all about them.” Whether it’s speeding, cutting others off, or tailgating, many motorists today seem oblivious to other road users. But even worse, bad behavior is contagious. It’s easy to react to an aggressive driver with a counter-aggressive move.

Moser encouraged attendees to discuss these hazards with their drivers. “Talk to your drivers. Tell them: Don't let aggressive drivers affect the way you drive; let the aggressive driver go.”

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for an increase in crash fatalities is the fact that Americans are addicted to electronics. People take their cell phones everywhere — even to the bathroom — and that says something about how hooked consumers are on electronics.

So how do organizations help their fleet drivers overcome electronic addiction? It all starts with a smart safety policy.

“A clear policy is absolutely a must. The policy needs to be absorbed and must be reviewed by legal. HR has to communicate that policy as your foundation,” said Franssen. “And, this policy needs to be updated regularly.”

Moser concurred, using the specifics of use of electronics as an example of a key policy element. “Put policies in place and talk to your drivers. No phones. As far as texting, tweeting, and all that stuff, you’re 23 times more likely to crash if you’re doing an alphanumeric activity.”

But there are still more reasons beyond distracted driving that account for a rise in collisions.

Impaired driving is another major issue. During the pandemic, there was a mental health crisis and many people started self-medicating, using over the counter medications, alcohol, and even illicit drugs. Moreover, there is also a heroin and fentanyl issue that affects people of various populations across the country. Finally, more and more states have already or plan to legalize recreational marijuana.

With this as a backdrop, the panel recommended that organizations implement strict policies regarding drug and alcohol use. Moser noted that in some policies it is “a fireable offense” if a driver refuses to take the company’s blood, breath, or urine testing for alcohol or other drugs. But today, policies also need to clearly state the ramifications if a driver refuses to take a field sobriety test by a drug recognition expert, for example.

Finally, advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) were also cited as a possible catalyst for collisions in that the technology can make some drivers lazy or less focused.

“Time and again we’ve seen an over reliance on ADAS. People think they understand it and some of the manufacturers even promote it as self-driving,” said Belknap. “I think over reliance on ADAS along with addiction to electronics really go hand-in-hand.”

This Fleet Forward Conference panel explored various roadway dangers and offered strategies fleet operators can use to keep drivers safe and correct dangerous behavior.  -  Photo: Ross Stewart, RMS3Digital

This Fleet Forward Conference panel explored various roadway dangers and offered strategies fleet operators can use to keep drivers safe and correct dangerous behavior.

Photo: Ross Stewart, RMS3Digital

Strategies and Solutions

The panelists delved into a discussion of the following primary methods for boosting driver safety in a challenging climate of distraction, addiction, and aggression. Here is a collective summary of their recommendations and advice.

Education

While implementing a clear safety policy is job one, educating drivers about everything from ADAS technology to the reality of the roads should be a top priority.

As it concerns ADAS for example, the panelists emphasized that the technology is a support system. Drivers need to be educated that it’s irresponsible to completely rely on the tech. Just because a vehicle is equipped with lane departure warning, lane keeping assist, and forward brake assist, does not mean that drivers are suddenly at liberty to eat, talk on a cell phone, or text. Drivers need to understand the limitations and that the vehicle is not going to take care of them.

“The technology just isn’t good enough yet to be able to just release the control of the vehicle to the vehicle,” said Moser. “The best safety equipment you have in your vehicle is your driver.”

The experts recommended behind-the-wheel courses that help familiarize drivers in a controlled environment and ensure that all the ADAS features are being applied. When used properly, ADAS can save lives. But it takes education for drivers to understand the value and the limitations.

As Moser suggests, “Teach your drivers about what ADAS does. Teach them what it is going to do, if it activates, and not to be overreliant on it.”

Education is key when it comes to distracted driving, too. “The best way to educate your employees is to kind of scare them or give them a dose of reality,” Franssen said.

She went on to share a video that she typically plays for new employees. Known as the invisible gorilla experiment, the video shows people passing balls back and forth. In the midst of the exercise, a gorilla walks into the frame — but studies show that 50% of people don’t see the gorilla.

The exercise points out that if we are paying very close attention to one thing, we often fail to notice other things in our field of vision — even very obvious things. Franssen uses it to remind employees that they may think they are focusing on driving, but their mind is somewhere else.

As for eradicating distracted driving altogether, ultimately, the experts agreed, there needs to be a culture shift. Drivers need to start viewing the use of cell phones behind the wheel the way we look at lack of seat belt compliance — it’s just not acceptable.

The real shift may take a generation. It all begins with very early education, noted Moser.

“As far as electronics use when driving, you need to educate your kids as they’re growing up with the message: You don’t use this when driving. Period. That’s the rule. Don’t do it,” said Moser.

Training and Telematics

The panelists also emphasized that organizations should keep pace with new training. To engage drivers, keep training short and to the point. 

Franssen also pointed out that fleet safety managers should know their audience. There are currently about five generations in the workforce. So it’s imperative to think about how you train each generation — what will appeal to and work for one age group, may not for another.

The consensus was also that while training and building a curriculum are important, drivers do not learn how to drive from online training courses. Rather, training plays a role in reinforcement of key safety messages and behaviors.

The experts agreed that ridealongs and behind-the-wheel training are very valuable.

Moser used hitting a golf ball as an analogy. “You can read 1,000 things or watch 1,000 videos on how to hit a golf ball. But until you go out there and hit the golf ball, you’re not really going to learn how to do it. So I think the behind the wheel element is very important because we’ll make them go through something numerous times.”

Behind-the-wheel training is an opportunity to assess the nuances of each driver — whether they bump over a curb as they make a turn or how safely they back out of a spot, for example. It is also the ideal time to ensure that a driver explores all the latest safety technology.

“Think about it. When a driver gets a new vehicle, what better way to familiarize themselves with all of the capabilities of the vehicle?” Belknap noted. “It’s a chance to do so in a controlled environment rather than on the road while they’re trying to get to their next call.”

Telematics is another tool that fleet managers have long relied on. The experts agree that telematics play a key role in helping to identify risky behaviors such as distracted driving and/or high-risk drivers.

Many drivers do not have violations or crashes on their record, but that does not necessarily mean they are driving safely. Telematics can assist in alerting a fleet safety manager to someone who may be a ticking bomb due to their risky behaviors like harsh braking or tailgating, for example. 

Telematics data can tell a story that helps an organization deliver the appropriate kind of training. It allows operators and safety managers to look at leading indicators, and all the different near misses that drivers are encountering. Through the use of telematics, one can spot trends and then get ahead of problems with specific training that reinforces proper driving behaviors.

Engaging Management, Culture of Safety

Ultimately, the experts agreed that the best fleet safety programs start with a solid safety policy that management embraces.

“It is very important to have management buy-in. The way I did that was though one-on-one conversations with different managers so they would understand the mission,” said Franssen. “It took longer, but having their buy in is key. They are able to understand the policy and enforce the policy with employees.”

Moser told attendees that you have to engage managers and get them on board with your safety program. Ultimately, the goal is to build a culture of safety. When top management views safety as a priority, it typically trickles down.

About the author
Marianne Matthews

Marianne Matthews

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Marianne Matthews contributes safety news and articles for the Fleet Safety newsletter. She is an experienced trade editor.

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