At the end of 2011, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) formally announced its opinion that states should adopt a complete ban on use of portable electronic devices in vehicles, including hands-free devices. Even more recently, the Department of Transportation proposed guidelines designed to encourage automakers to limit the risk of driver distraction.

Automotive Fleet spoke with fleet management company PHH Arval’s Senior Vice President Strategic Alliances, Steve DiBiagio, about the efforts fleets are currently making to combat distracted driving.

Q-Given that the NTSB recommendation is for each state to adopt its own set of laws and rules, and level of enforcement, regarding the use of portable devices in the vehicle, how should fleets handle the patchwork of regulations while still allowing their drivers to meet the business’ needs?

A-What fleets shouldn’t do is wait for a legal or regulatory mandate to manage the safety of their drivers. Every company has to develop a safety policy around its employees, whether they’re at a desk, in a plant, or behind the wheel of a car. Rather than wait for the state or municipal government to step in, it is absolutely imperative that every fleet, every organization, develop and implement a safety policy for its drivers.

Q-In general, do fleets have safety policies? If so, what are they doing to enforce those policies?

A-Here’s what we’re seeing: Most of our customers have taken that measure. I can’t think of an organization that hasn’t. The challenge is moving from policy communication to policy enforcement. That really is the crux of the matter. According to the National Safety Council there are 35,000 vehicle deaths per year, or about 100 people a day dying; it’s the number one cause of death in the workplace.

Based on the data we have, 61% of organizations say they use post incident enforcement.  When a driver has been in an accident, and there is evidence that the driver has been using a mobile phone to speak, text, or email, there is an after-the-fact enforcement, which is problematic. What you need is preventive enforcement. Cell phone use behind the wheel is more of a behavioral concern than a technological concern.

Q-What do you think the impact of a possible prohibition on hands-free devices? How would different types of fleets (sales vs. service, for example) deal with such a ban?

A-There’s really no way for us to know whether a ban will be suggested, legislated, or complied with. Clearly the cell phone is a ubiquitous piece of business equipment for our clients. The conversation is not about the technology, it’s about safety. Our clients will always do what’s necessary to keep their drivers safe with or without the passing of laws and regulations.

Q-When it comes to technological solutions, what would you say are effective characteristics of a solution?

A-There are no two driver situations that are identical. There are no two customer situations that are identical. It has to be preventive, so it guards against behaviors that contribute to crashes, so it’s proactive in nature. The next part involves reporting and the related data. It has to be very specific and match the client’s policy. It has to provide data that is actionable and enables us to go back to the policy, training and risk awareness, enforcement, technology, and reporting. It’s very similar to the reporting in fuel utilization, preventive maintenance, which must provide actionable information for the fleet management companies and the client.

Q-How can a company that doesn’t provide its employees with cell phones keep its employees from using their personal devices while driving company vehicles?

A-It again depends on how the company wants to address that. But what’s important to remember is that it’s a public safety issue, and whether it’s a personal cell phone or company cell phone – two hands should be on the steering wheel and two eyes should be on the road.

However, in terms of policies, I’d say they are designed with the specific objectives of the client involved. They vary in terms of their effectiveness and by geography, by industry, and by the demographics of the driver. Again, it gets back to customizing the policy to meet the objectives you have as a business and meet the driver’s characteristics.

One of the key things here is awareness because it is such a behavioral habit. What we find startling is when we look at utilization, by driver, when we share the number of texts an individual receives each day, they are astounded by the number. It’s such a part of their day, they didn’t realize they got 30 emails in the last five hours as he or she was driving, and by suppressing those emails he or she got 3 hours of safe driving.

Q-What do you believe these announcements have achieved?

A-They elevate this conversation to a national level. It is really focusing people on the magnitude of the situation.