Ohio is the latest state to get with the program as it concerns distracted driving. On January 3, the governor signed Senate Bill 288 into law. The bill bans “using, holding, or physically supporting with any part of a person’s body an electronic wireless communications device.”
In short, the hands-on use of cell phones, iPads, laptops, or any electronic device is finally prohibited behind the wheel in Ohio. And, the data suggests it’s high time.
The bill comes after the state has experienced some serious crashes, injuries, and fatalities due to distraction. For example, the Ohio State Highway Patrol verifies that there have been at least 73,945 distracted driving crashes in Ohio since 2017, including 2,186 fatal and serious injury crashes, reports the Times Bulletin.
Moreover, traffic fatalities overall in the Buckeye State have increased in eight of nine years from 2013 to 2021 — with deaths reaching their highest point in nearly two decades in 2021 with 1,355 fatalities. Finally, projections indicate that at least 1,269 people were killed in traffic crashes in 2022, notes the report.
While the new Ohio law is a step in the right direction in curbing distracted driving deaths, the question remains: Is regulation enough?
Let’s look at a state that led the way in distracted driving regulations. In 2001, New York became the first state in the nation to ban hand-held cell phone use while driving, with further legislation enacted in 2009 prohibiting texting while driving, according to the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee.
Yet data published in 2021 from insurance firm Trusted Choice shows that New York still has a significant distracted driving problem. Driver inattention or distraction is a factor is 20% of all crashes in New York. The risky behavior is responsible for 10.4% of all fatal crashes in this state, 24.5% of all injury-producing crashes, and 24.9% of all collisions with pedestrians.
Moreover, nearly 28% of New York drivers surveyed admitted to texting while driving “sometimes” or even more frequently.
Even with laws solidly in place, people can't seem to keep their hands off their cell phones when behind the wheel. In 2018, New York State police issued 4,542 distracted driving citations, according to Trusted Choice. Some 2,772 were for handheld cell phone use and another 1,770 were for texting while driving.
That begs the question, is legislation enough to keep the average American driver from engaging in distractions while behind the wheel? And just how are we addressing distracted driving with professional fleet drivers?
Experts say we need an array of tools — education, training, legislation, and technology — to combat the nation’s distracted driving crisis and this hold true for fleets as well as consumers.
Prevalence of Distracted Driving Among Fleet Drivers
“Distracted driving causes more collisions, more damage than any other risk we see in commercial fleets,” said Stefan Heck, CEO, Nauto, which offers a real-time, AI-enabled driver and fleet safety platform that helps predict, prevent, and end distracted driving.
“We see hundreds of risks and we’ve automated artificial intelligence (AI) to detect about 30 of them in real-time as you’re driving,” said Heck. “But if you look at the most common risks, a lot of the government reporting and incentives for fleets are around speeding and drowsiness, but not distraction.”
Yet distraction plays a big role in fleet incidents and crashes. “In all but one of 800 fleets we work with, distraction is the biggest cause of loss or damage,” said Heck. “In some fleets distraction makes up 70% of damage, in others it drops to 50% or 40%.”
While fleet drivers engage in many forms of distraction — eating, smoking, filling out forms — Heck says digital devices are by far and away the biggest form of distraction his company encounters.
“Some 80% of all distractions we see are either drivers using tablets or cellphones. Sometimes it's the cellphone issued by the company, but sometimes it’s a personal phone.”
Distraction comes in many severities, too, says Heck. He explains that Nauto assesses both the risk of what’s happening outside the vehicle as well as how long and at what speed the fleet driver is distracted. Essentially, Nauto evaluates a combination of the vehicle in motion and what’s out in front of the driver.
Heck uses the example of being stopped at a red light. In many states, even in that scenario use of a cellphone is illegal. But the actual risk is low; it’s not zero, as using a cellphone at a red light does increase one’s risk of getting rear-ended. Conversely, when traveling at highway speeds distraction brings a much greater risk. It only takes six seconds to go the length of a football field — so if the driver’s eyes are off the road and his or her hands are off the wheel, there is a huge risk for a crash.
Distraction is everywhere; almost every driver has it at some point.
“On average, before we start working with a fleet, drivers have between four to six distractions per hour,” said Heck. “We can get it down to less than half a distraction per moving hour and in some cases literally to zero. Or basically, one distraction a day based on the driver driving an eight hour day.”
In-Cab Cameras to AI-Enabled Tools
While laws and penalties are weapons that are helping to fight distracted driving, technology is another. Consider, for example, in-vehicle cameras. Some 52% of fleet drivers view themselves as safer, and 53% say they are more careful behind the wheel following in-cab camera adoption, according to a recent survey of more than 500 professional drivers conducted by Together for Safer Roads (TSR).
But while those findings suggest that professional drivers readily welcome in-vehicle safety technology, the reality is more complex. The survey went on to find that drivers who have never been exposed to in-vehicle cameras were suspicious of the technology, with 28% saying they object to cameras because they do not like the idea of being monitored while working.
Nonetheless, many fleets have found that in-cab camera technology has helped to reduce risky behaviors, including distracted driving.
However, there are also predictive-AI tools that fleets can tap. For example, fleets can use real-time alerts, which is essentially adding real-time ADAS and collision warning capability to the vehicle. Many base models used by fleets do not come equipped with ADAS. If a driver is about to run into a car or a pedestrian, Nauto’s technology warns the driver, and it allows the driver to avoid a collision.
There is also a form of in-vehicle coaching, but it’s not the traditional kind. Rather, Nauto’s AI tool recognizes what the driver is doing and picks the biggest risk of what the driver is doing — such as using the phone. The AI then speaks to the driver with a positive message such as, “pull over to use your phone.”
“We believe drivers are professionals and if you give the driver feedback while they are on the job driving — when they still have a chance to reduce the risk — versus in the classroom, it is much more powerful,” said Heck.
Heck says Nauto’s technology on average can eliminate 80% of risky behavior in just a couple of weeks, which leads to about a 60% reduction in collisions within the first three months.
The results vary depending on the type of fleet. In Heck’s experience, the average fleet has four to six distractions per moving hour. But with the worst fleets — which are often passenger transport fleets like taxi companies and gig economy companies — some drivers are distracted 15 times per moving hour. That’s a whole lot of distraction going on!
All Efforts Matter
Presently, 30 states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) prohibit all drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). Moreover, in all cases, these are primary enforcement laws, meaning an officer may cite a driver for using a handheld cellphone without any other traffic offense taking place.
As for text messaging, Washington was the first state to pass a texting ban in 2007. Currently, 48 states and D.C. ban text messaging for all drivers. All but five states have primary enforcement. Of the two states without an all-driver texting ban, one prohibits text messaging by novice drivers, notes GHSA.
While education and training are a given, fleets must draw on both regulations and technology to end distracted driving.
“We need both, but have to be careful how we balance it,” said Heck. “Distraction is so common and such a big cause of loss that regulation should mandate these distraction detection systems in all vehicles.”
In fact, says Heck, this is already the case in Europe. Starting with model year 2025, driver monitoring systems that can detect drowsiness and distraction will be required in all new commercial and passenger vehicles.
While this kind of initiative is under study in the U.S., there is no commitment yet. In the meantime, fleets must continue to educate and train drivers about the dangers of distracted driving and utilize both regulations and technology to motivate drivers to always stay focused on the road — and only the road.