A distraction is any activity that reduces visual connection and understanding of changing traffic conditions and takes a driver's attention away from the road.
For fleet managers, distractions can turn into millions of dollars in losses due to accidents and the ensuing injuries to drivers and damage to vehicles, as well as any other motorists involved.
Distracted driving comes in three forms: cognitive, visual, and manual. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), cognitive distractions are when a driver's mind isn't focused on driving. Visual distractions occur when the driver looks at anything but the road ahead. Manual distractions occur when the driver takes one or both hands off the wheel.
Recognizing the Biggest Problem
Of the many types of driver distractions, texting or talking on a cell phone while driving is still a primary concern. The reason for this, according to David Teater, senior director for the National Safety Council (NSC), is due to risk exposure.
"We try to focus on the activity that causes the most crashes, in which people will be more often hurt or injured. We believe the greatest cause of distracted driving crashes is when a driver is using a mobile communication device, such as a smartphone or cell phone," Teater said.
He explained that the concern with cell phones is not because everything we do on a phone is the most risky thing we can do while driving. While talking on a cell phone while driving is less risky than texting or e-mailing, the issue is truly how often drivers are exposed to the risk.
"If there is a really bad risk out there, but we are never exposed to it, it will not cause many crashes. But, if there is a moderate risk out there and we are continually exposed to it, such as cell phone conversations while driving, then it causes a lot of crashes," Teater said.
Estimates from NHTSA state that 10 percent of all drivers at any given moment are distracted by a cell phone. This greatly increases the risk exposure from this activity.
While Phil Moser, vice president of Advanced Driver Training Services (ADTS) acknowledges the many other forms of driver distraction, he agreed with Teater, noting that the number of people currently using a cell phone, or texting while driving, is a much bigger problem in comparison with other distraction concerns.
"Numerous studies have shown that talking on the phone — hands-free or handheld — increases your risk of being in a crash, similar to a person who has a 0.08 blood alcohol concentration, which is the assumed level of intoxication throughout North America," according to Moser. "Drunk driving, and its impact, is recognized throughout the world as a severe danger on the roadways. And, yet, although numerous studies have shown that you are as likely to crash as a drunk driver if you are using the phone, people still continue this activity at epidemic proportions."
Moser noted that the mental aspect of driver distraction is critical and "inattention blindness" is a very real phenomenon.
"You can look at something, and if you are thinking of something else, you won't even realize that what you are looking at is there," he said. "The phrase 'I never even saw the other car' is a very common statement made by drivers who pulled into the path of an oncoming vehicle. In reality, they did see the oncoming car, but because their mind was elsewhere, it did not register. This loss of focus is a major contributor to many crashes."
Statistics show that taking your eyes off the road for just two seconds can double your risk of a crash. According to Art Liggio, president of Driving Dynamics, the leading contributors of this issue are data entry (dialing, texting, GPS, etc.), engaging in in-vehicle activities (controlling children and pets, reaching for an item, grooming, eating, etc.), roadside diversions (billboards, disabled vehicles, "rubbernecking," sports events, etc.), and drowsiness.
Liggio also concurred with Teater and Moser regarding the deadly concerns of "inattention blindness."
"Cognitive research has shown that the 'mind's eye' becomes visually impaired when engaged in certain nonessential driving activities, in particular, engaging in phone conversations while driving," Liggio said. "As a phone call proceeds, brain activities essential for safe driving are redirected to support phone conversation interactions and the driver, from a cognitive perspective, sees less and less of the changing traffic conditions and cannot respond in a timely manner, if at all."
Getting Drivers Onboard
Fleet managers should consider a policy completely banning handheld and hands-free cell-phone use. The NSC has a "Cell Phone Policy Kit" available at no cost on its website to help fleet managers create such a policy.
"Best safety practice is a distracted driving policy that prohibits all cell phone or mobile communications device use while the vehicle is in motion," according to Teater. "Some of the largest fleets in the country are adopting these policies. And, while they do note a period of adjustment, they do not report a loss in productivity."
In fact, according to the NSC, only 1 percent of companies they studied reported any decrease in overall productivity after a complete ban on cell phone use while driving. Of the remaining fleets, 90 percent reported no change, and 9 percent actually reported an increase in productivity.
"You adapt. Before you go out the door, you stop and think about whether you have done everything and called everyone that you need to until you are able to pick up the phone again," Teater said.
Liggio of Driving Dynamics also recommended working on policy.
"A no-exception policy is certainly a decent place to begin, in which supervisors are also held accountable. While habits do not change overnight, for long-term results, work on getting buy-in from everyone in the organization and support this initiative by consistently getting the message out. Offer practical, easy-to-follow tips on how to stay productive safely, explain how everyone benefits, and share results," Liggio said.
For years, fleet managers have been telling drivers about the dangers of distracted driving. But, according to Moser of ADTS, you cannot simply tell a driver "don't talk on the phone or text," you have to tell them why and provide some solutions.
"Letting drivers know the reality of the risk is a start," Moser said. "Fleet managers should also develop strict policies that have follow-through in the event a driver does use the phone while driving. Let drivers know that every new vehicle has an event data recorder that records the driver's activities leading up to a crash, as well."
Finally, Liggio of Driving Dynamics recommended that fleet managers go beyond the checklist approach.
"Of course, it's important and meaningful to have a safety policy in place addressing distracted driving, but, in addition to the policy, tracking violations, and resulting enforcement, any person or group charged with helping the organization control and reduce risky driving behavior should consider an ongoing safety messaging campaign to bring this subject to the forefront and keep it there," Liggio said.
In essence, he recommended fleet managers market safety to their constituents with the goal of creating a shared and valued culture of safety.
"My experience in consulting with employers that start down this path is most of them eventually roll out this type of messaging to their entire population as employee safety is being recognized as a 24/7/365 concern," Liggio said.
Another tip Moser recommended is telling drivers to put phones on total silence when driving. "If they hear the phone ring while driving, they will be tempted to answer," he said.
The Great MultiTasking Lie
While most, if not all of us, can agree now that texting while driving is a dangerous behavior, the National Safety Council (NSC) believes that many people don't fully grasp that having cell phone conversations in the car is also risky.
"Cognitive distractions last so much longer than other distractions, such as visual ones. When you dial a cell phone, you may be visually distracted for a few seconds, but you are now cognitively distracted the entire length of the cell phone call," noted David Teater, senior director for the NSC.
Here are four myths that the NSC wants to help break regarding the "great multitasking lie."
MYTH 1: Drivers can multitask.
Reality: Contrary to popular belief, the human brain cannot multitask. Driving and talking on a cell phone are two thinking tasks that involve many areas of the brain. Instead of processing both simultaneously, the brain rapidly switches between two cognitive activities.
MYTH 2: Talking to someone on a cell phone is no different than talking to someone in the car.
Reality: A study cited by the University of Utah found that drivers distracted by cell phones are more oblivious to changing traffic conditions because they are the only ones in the conversation who are aware of the road.
In contrast, drivers with adult passengers in their cars have an extra set of eyes and ears to help keep the drivers alerts of oncoming traffic problems. Adult passengers tend to adjust their talking when traffic is challenging. People on the other end of a driver's cell phone cannot do that.
MYTH 3: Hands-free devices eliminate the danger of cell-phone use during driving.
Reality: Whether handheld or hands-free, cell phone conversations while driving are risky because the distraction to the brain remains. Activity in the parietal lobe, the area of the brain that processes movement of visual images and is important for safe driving, decreases by as much as 37 percent when listening to language, according to a study by Carnegie Mellon University.
Drivers talking on cell phones can miss seeing up to 50 percent of their driving environments, including pedestrians and red lights. They look but they don't see. This phenomenon is also known as "inattention blindness."
MYTH 4: Drivers talking on cell phone still have a quicker reaction time than those who are driving under the influence.
Reality: A controlled driving simulator study conducted by the University of Utah found that drivers using cell phones had slower reaction times than drivers with an 0.08 blood alcohol content, the legal intoxication limit.
Drivers talking on cell phones can immediately eliminate their risk by hanging up the phone, while drunk drivers remain at risk until they sober up.