Fleets are continuing to persevere in the realm of driver safety despite the plight of road dangers. Recent reports from the National Safety Council (NSC) in 2019 observe that the road continues to have dangerous risks, the likes of which continue to result in a high number of fatalities reported.
The NSC reported in February 2019 that the previous year marked the third straight year that motor vehicle fatalities reached the 40,000 mark. The sobering statistic from the NSC highlighted that seven states, as well as the nation’s capital, saw at least a 5.8% increase spike in fatalities, according to the NSC. This included Florida, Hawaii, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.
While the consistency in road fatalities over the last few years indicates some leveling off versus the increase in fatalities prior to the last three years, initiatives to improve road safety have not dwindled, especially among fleets.
How the Best Stay Safe
Phil Samuelson, fleet and capital asset manager, USIC and the 2018 Edward J. Bobit Professional Fleet Manager of the Year has helped make safety a top priority for his fleet, but not without the help of his organization, which has declared employee safety as its No. 1 priority.
First and foremost, a fleet needs backup from its organization to instill a profound safety culture. Having full support from the top down will initiate efforts that are aimed at improving driver safety. For USIC, Samuelson said the company’s CEO is heavily involved with the promotion of best safety practices across the organization, as is the team’s environment, health and safety (EH&S) department.
“They’re a very pointed and directed EH&S department, who are really involved in not just driver safety, but they’re very focused on accident reduction and driver training,” he said. “Living a safe life is our company motto.”
Part of his Fleet Manager of the Year honor was based on the big strides toward safety that he and his company helped implement. One such initiative was a major focus on consistent safety training.
Another prominent, universal issue his team has also addressed is the ubiquitous problem of distracted driving, which is a major contributor to the high number of road fatalities.
The prevention of distracted driving is elemental to any sound fleet safety policy.
Adam Orth, manager, fleet services - Global Business Solutions for General Mills, said that issues of distracted driving can be seen as a two-way street; meaning the likelihood of a crash that occurs as a result of two drivers being distracted could be curbed if at least one party remains attentive.
“Our policy states that employees may not use hand-held cell phones while the vehicle is stopped or in motion. We also call out that employees should not engage in other activities that could be a distraction while driving,” said Orth.
Similarly, Samuelson also enforces a strict, no cellphone or laptop use policy when the driver is navigating a vehicle. This is a company-wide, no exception policy, despite what state laws may permit legally. However, his fleet has gone a step further and incorporated technology into company vehicles that blocks usage of certain company provided devices while vehicles are in motion.
“It’s hard not to equate the rise of personal devices and distracted driving to these increased highway fatalities. It would seem to make sense that the growing ‘addiction’ to these devices among all age groups would lead to more accidents at higher speeds, which would lead to increased fatalities. We are striving to bring those messages to our drivers and employees,” said a fleet manager who wished to speak anonymously, whose fleet policy has a large focus on the elimination of distracted driving.
Detailed Safety Programs
As mentioned, a fleet that is utilizing best safety practices will have a very robust safety program instilled by way of ideals of the company culture. Part of this means utilizing more safety technology and engaging in more in-depth driver monitoring using data.
Reviewing motor vehicle records (MVRs) and conducting regular driver performance reviews are par for the course of a proficient fleet manager, but the skilled fleet manager who goes above and beyond in terms of safety will have other plans in place to keep operations safe.
The anonymous fleet manager has more recently taken advantage of the latest in fleet technology for his operations that is designed to monitor and track driver behavior on a more nuanced level. With this, he and his company have been able to proactively educate drivers on their driving behavior.
“Safety has always been a priority, however we have engaged more recently in more proactive driver safety awareness programs, making our drivers more aware of their habits behind the wheel that may put them at higher risk has shown us where we need to focus our training,” said the anonymous fleet manager. His fleet utilizes Lytx safety tools which help him and his fleet identify where risky drivers behaviors are occurring to minimize exposure to potential future risks.
He mentioned that his team experienced some pushback for the implementation of the technology from drivers who had a history of bad driving habits.
“We hope that reiteration of our main priority, their safety, will help them see that programs implemented aren’t designed as ‘gotcha’ and to impose penalties, but programs designed to help improve their driving behaviors and make them safer,” he said of the technology.
He also said some members of management who were uncertain of the program’s effectiveness showed some resistance, until benefits were observed.
“Initial pushback from management believing that their drivers would never behave in these unsafe ways quickly changed when they were able to see what is going on out on the road,” said the anonymous fleet manager. “Some increased paperwork upfront diminishes after drivers behaviors are changed which decreases the amount of conferences with them.”
His organization has seen a decrease in accident rates since the program’s implementation.
“We want to limit the severity of the incidents and be able to identify those drivers that have behaviors that indicate they have a higher risk of being involved in future accidents before they happen,” said the fleet manager. “As a corporate entity we have seen reductions in our at-fault accidents.”
Keeping Speed Low
Meanwhile, Samuelson of USIC has also helped implement a different type of safety technology, which puts a cap on vehicle speeds.
“Every vehicle that we can, we’ve gone in and worked specific software on the vehicle so we limit the upper speed limits,” he said. “We implemented this for safety, but also for fuel savings.”
Data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reported in April 2019 that rising speed limits over the past 25 years have cost nearly 37,000 lives, with more than 1,900 in 2017 alone. The study also reported 41 states have maximum speed limits of 70 mph or higher. Six states have 80 mph limits, and drivers in Texas can legally drive 85 mph on some roads.
Samuelson has also implemented the speed cap in vehicles with regards to backing speed, despite backing speeds generally being low.
“We still monitor speeds at all levels, we’re just as concerned about the driver who is going 40 mph through a 25 mph zone,” said Samuelson. “Having a cap on their top speed does limit drivers, but a majority of violations for speeding usually come in lower speed bands.”
This accident type typically occurs in parking lots, and continues to be a top accident description for fleet vehicles. Most recently, Automotive Fleet reported that nearly 10% of accidents were related to parking/backing.
Meanwhile, according to the National Safety Council, more than 50,000 collisions occur in parking lots and garage structures annually — resulting in 500 or more fatalities and over 60,000 injuries.
“It’s not always a high cost because it’s usually at lowers speeds, but it’s 110% avoidable,” said Samuelson. “All the vehicles that we’ve acquired in the last three years have back up cameras and we’ve implemented back up alarms as well, but we still have backing accidents.”
Vehicle Safety Tech
But it’s not just how the vehicles that are being tracked that helps create the robust safety culture. It’s the vehicles themselves, or rather, the safety capabilities that keep them safe.
This has become increasingly standardized for newer model year vehicles, even on base trim models. For example, backup cameras are now standard on all new cars available in the U.S.
“That is something that we consider each year when updating our vehicle selectors; adding technologies to vehicles that will make our drivers safer and not increase their distractions by using that technology while driving is the key,” said the anonymous fleet manager. Similarly, for 2019, Orth of General Mills emphasized the safety capabilities of vehicles on their selectors as being a major proponent to keeping his fleet safe.
“For our new 2019 vehicles we added seven more standard safety features to our vehicles such as low speed forward automatic braking, front pedestrian braking, lane keep assist with lane departure warning, and lane change alert,” he said. “This type of technology is designed to assist the driver with their own behaviors but also protect the driver from the driving behaviors of others.”
But the technological advancements of vehicles can act as a double-edged sword: while safety technologies can help the driver, updated vehicle interfaces and infotainment systems create potential distraction situations.
“The vehicles are safer, but they’re also more complex,” said Samuelson of USIC.
A study from AAA Foundation and the University of Utah that measures cognitive and visual demands of infotainment systems suggests that they are not proven safe to use when operating a motor vehicle.
“Most vehicles now allow seamless interaction between personal devices and the vehicles,” said the anonymous fleet manager. “We want to keep phones out of people’s hands and their eyes on the road while they are driving.”
How Safe Driving Practices Apply Elsewhere
Effective road safety practices not only keep drivers safe, but can help find benefits in other areas of the fleet, operationally.
For example, improving driver safety will also have an impact on reducing fuel spend; this includes curbing aggressive driving tendencies.
“Aggressive driving (speeding, rapid acceleration and braking) wastes gas,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy. “It can lower your gas mileage by roughly 15% to 30% at highway speeds and 10% to 40% in stop-and-go traffic.”
Also, curbing poor driving practices helps to keep the vehicles themselves safe; damaged vehicles equate to unwanted downtime, and may decrease employee and asset productivity. This will ultimately impact the corporate bottom line.
On the opposite end, as a way to boost fleet productivity while also encouraging safety, the USIC fleet implemented a gamification program to help curb potential road risks.
Drivers are divided into teams and ranked based on how safe their group of drivers is. They are rewarded if the entire team is able to avoid infractions or accidents.
This is done during summer, the company’s busiest season, and has been found as a successful way to curb risky driving he said.
Another rising concern is pedestrian road fatalities.
An estimated 6,227 pedestrians lost their lives on U.S. roads in 2018, a 4% increase over the 5,977 deaths in 2017 and the highest number of pedestrian fatalities in nearly three decades, according to a report from the Governors Highway Safety Association.
But this isn’t just an issue with the pedestrians fleet drivers have to watch out for; they can be part of the problem too.
Samuelson said that pedestrian safety is a huge concern for his company.
“This kind of safety practice not only applies in terms of preventing our team getting hit by oncoming vehicles, but so that they don’t cause the accident by walking out into the street. It goes both ways,” he said.
This issue can be especially problematic for USIC and the construction industry as whole. Indeed, The Center for Construction Research in training reported in Q4 2018 that the number of fatalities among all construction workers climbed to 1,034 in 2016, 49 more deaths (or 5% higher) than in 2015, and a 32% increase since 2011, which has outplaced employment growth during the same period.