In the last few years, the roads have become less safe primarily due to the rise in aggressive driving and distractions behind the wheel, said Tony Douglas, president and CEO of Smith System, a provider of crash-avoidance driver safety training.
“In one sense, it’s counterintuitive because vehicles are safer than they’ve ever been,” Douglas said in a recent video episode of Fast Forward. “Technological enhancements are more prevalent than they’ve ever been. You can even argue that the roads in the United States are better than they’ve ever been. And yet, the fatality rate and the collision rate are going in the wrong direction. There is also less courtesy on the road, and people are driving faster.”
Despite the federal government’s efforts on lessening the impact of distracted driving, Douglas said he hasn’t seen any measurable improvement.
In the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, which has a population of more than 7 million, Douglas observed that drivers are much less patient since the pandemic. “I'm not sure how to attribute that or what the social reasons are, but it is a fact.”
In the video, Douglas discusses the pressing issues in fleet safety and the ways fleets can improve their drivers’ behaviors.
Different Approaches in Safety Training
With the recent Smith System’s acquisition of Driving Dynamics, which provides driver safety training services for commercial fleets across the U.S., Douglas said that it gives Smith System an opportunity to offer “a larger array of products and services, which we hope will enable fleet customers to have more of a one-stop shop when it comes to fleet safety products and services.”
The Smith System offers approximately 700 safety training courses in its e-learning library. But changing drivers’ behaviors solely through e-learning is “pretty tough to accomplish,” Douglas said.
“If you’re a golfer, you’re modeling your swing after Rory McIlroy. Or if you’re a tennis player, you’re modeling your swing after Roger Federer,” Douglas said. “You get a choice: 15 minutes of watching a YouTube video to improve your serve or driving off the tee — or eight hours on a golf course or on the tennis court to help improve your game. Which one do you think is going to be more likely to achieve behavioral change? That’s not an unrealistic comparison to what happens in what we do from a training standpoint behind the wheel, whether it’s the Smith System approach or it’s the Driving Dynamics approach.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled the Smith System to look at risk exposures for a season, Douglas said. The Driving Dynamics’ side offers a virtual classroom presentation through Zoom or another platform that’s interactive. Similarly, the Smith System provides e-learning courses that are prerequisites before the behind-the-wheel training. “The first step was using technology to help eliminate some of those exposure potentials,” he said.
Driving Dynamics would then move to radio communication with the driver doing maneuvers on a closed course, while the Smith System, with a barrier in place, would provide one-on-one, rather than one-on-five, behind-the-wheel instruction, Douglas said.
Douglas said it was not necessarily the best case in either scenario, but it was “something we were able to do to help us get through the pandemic.”
Some customers prefer the combination of virtual classroom instruction and behind-the-wheel training. “For example, in the case of Driving Dynamics, they like being able to break up that full training day into two sessions: one session learning through virtual instruction, and then the other session being outside.”
Douglas said that, to some extent, Smith System is trying to focus its training more on in-person interaction, in combination with classroom instruction, “because it’s just so hard to replicate.”
However, Douglas said that Smith System has some customers who have decided to move exclusively more toward either a virtual or an e-learning environment without classroom and behind-the-wheel instruction.
Distracted Driving and Marijuana Use
The plethora of technology being built into vehicles today, which requires a tremendous amount of interaction from the drivers, has contributed significantly to the rise in distracted driving, Douglas said.
Douglas said that there seems to be a wide acceptance of communicating on electronic devices, such as a personal digital assistant (PDA), as a birthright. He also noted that drivers are so addicted to using these devices while driving that they’ve developed a “Pavlovian response to the sound that the mobile phones make.”
“If it dings, they want to know what it is,” Douglas said. “Or they want to use that time at the stoplight to take their mind completely, or disengage it, from the driving task and engage it in whatever they’re reading or seeing on that PDA.”
Even if the device is hands-free, drivers are still distracted, Douglas said. “If you’re verbally giving the response to a message, your mind is on the message. It’s not on driving.”
Companies in the marketplace can offer fleets the capability to disable electronic devices while the vehicle is in motion, Douglas said. “The only way to eliminate distractions is to disable these devices. Just like with drunk driving, the only way to prevent it is not to drink.”
Regulators, the government, and auto manufacturers can also have a significant impact or exert an influence in mitigating distracted driving, Douglas said.
Regarding the issue of allowing drivers under the influence of marijuana on the road, Douglas said it would be similar to dealing with circumstances involving drivers who use alcohol. “As states continue to see approvals for sale and use of marijuana or cannabis across the United States, I think the stats will begin to reveal what I expect will be a problem.”
While it’s premature to definitively say that the consequences of marijuana use while driving would be as lethal as alcohol use, “we’ve got every reason to believe it’s going to be similar,” Douglas said.
False Sense of Security with ADAS
Advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) can pose a potential safety hazard if the drivers are less focused or not fully engaged while driving the vehicle.
“ADAS systems are not designed to be beneficial to someone who’s not paying attention,” Douglas said. “Everything that’s built into those systems is designed to trigger a response from somebody who’s engaged. There is no question there is a false sense of security that you get from those systems. But you can be a much better driver if you’re well trained and with the benefit of the ADAS systems, which can certainly make a good driver, a better driver. They can’t make a bad driver, a better driver.”
Watch the entire video interview here: