How to Help Drivers Deal with In-Vehicle Distractions
Mike Antich of Automotive Fleet magazine (podium) moderated the session on driver distractions which included (l-r) Ken Latzko of The CEI Group, Randy Shadley of Corporate Claims Management, Dan Shive of LeasePlan USA, and Jodie Varner of Fleet Response.
At the 2014 Fleet Safety Conference, held in Schaumburg, Ill, a panel discussion was held to identify cutting-edge best practices in helping drivers deal with in-vehicle distractions, which is typically identified as the No. 1 safety challenge facing fleet managers.
Fleet Financials magazine assembled a panel of four subject-matter experts, moderated by Mike Antich, editor of FF, to discuss successful fleet safety initiatives to address this challenge. Panelists included:
- Ken Latzko, regional sales manager – Southeast at The CEI Group.
- Dan Shive, vice president, risk management services at LeasePlan USA.
- Jodie Varner, director of business development at Fleet Response.
- Randy Shadley, CAFM, account manager and fleet safety specialist at Corporate Claims Management.
FF: How severe a problem is driver distraction in today’s vehicles?
SHIVE: First, let’s get in the “way back” machine. Remember the days when your vehicles were equipped with simple creature comforts, such as electric windows, two-way adjustable seats, and, if you were really cool, you had AM/FM with a cassette or CD player? Simply put, there were not a lot of distractions within the vehicle.
Today’s vehicles are equipped with so many additional items, including navigation. Most of today’s vehicles can have up to 75-plus buttons or settings within the vehicle. So much that I don’t even know what some of those buttons even do. Knowing your vehicle is important to help keep distractions to a minimum.
LATZKO: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving at any given daylight moment across North America.
To further emphasize the impact this has on road safety, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) states that five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55 mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field blindfolded. It is a very severe problem.
FF: What about non-technological distractions?
VARNER: Many people automatically think of cell phones as the only in-vehicle distraction, but standard features, such as a radio, can really be just as distracting. Another distraction, specifically for service fleets, is trying to follow directions and missing turns or freeway exits. Drivers need to be well prepared prior to beginning a route and remain focused on the road while completing their route.
SHADLEY: Some of the worst crashes I’ve reviewed resulted from the driver reaching too far for something while driving. It’s important to remind drivers to secure all cargo (equipment, drinks, etc.). And, if you mount equipment inside the vehicle, ensure it does not interfere with any air bag deployment zones. Diagrams and dimensions for air bag deployment zones are usually available on a vehicle manufacturer’s website. Anything blocking a deploying air bag can become a dangerous missile inside the vehicle.
FF: What are some best practices you have seen in communicating fleet safety policy, ensuring it is enforced, and, more importantly, enforced equally among all drivers?
SHADLEY: The best practices in communicating fleet safety policy typically involve three factors:
- Senior management support. Ideally, the policy will be announced and distributed by the top executive, so employees will know that a culture of safety is important to the organization and is a requirement for continued employment.
- Use of comprehensive driver agreements, where each driver confirms understanding of the fleet safety policy. I encourage fleets to not only have employees sign their names at the bottom of a page, but require them to actively acknowledge each clause of an agreement, where each clause covers a separate main point of the policy.
- Use periodic testing, maybe online, to test employees’ understanding of the fleet safety policy. This is also a great way to ensure understanding of any new or updated tenets of the policy.
Best practices in enforcing fleet policy include consistent and equal enforcement, thorough documentation of all actions, and a limit on people’s ability to allow policy exceptions. Failure to do so sets up a company for potential claims of discrimination, wrongful termination, and other HR issues.
SHIVE: I view best practices within the fleet safety policy in two categories — new hires and existing drivers.
Set the stage for a new driver to review and test on the policy to ensure understanding and reduce fleet’s exposure to negligent entrustment. All policy changes and updates should require all drivers to acknowledge as well as pass a test on, the new policy. It’s important to always communicate, in fact, over-communicate, the safety measures and the impact on the driver, their families, and the organization.
FF: How can you get senior management support to address the issue of driver distraction?
SHIVE: It is easier when your CEO and leadership teams have “safety” at the forefront of their objectives; however, that is not always the case. I recommend taking a simple approach to building a case for safety:
- Gather data: This includes not only industry data, but also information that’s readily available through the Internet, as well as through your own risk department.
- Work the “crowd”: Speak to others within your organization that have influence, including risk, HR, legal, etc. Begin the process by getting allies.
- Paint a picture, good or bad: You may have a very safe fleet, but remember, you’re trying to protect your employees, their families, and the organization. You might already have a story that will help drive your point.
- Present your goal and objective: Document and save any follow-up activities or rejections of your concept. Protect yourself in the end.
VARNER: Engaging senior management should really be a team effort. This is where creating a united front between fleet, risk, safety, and possibly HR can create a solid deliverable that they’ll pause to hear the message. Providing evidence of the issues and then solutions to those issues not only creates a proactive approach, but also shows a team effort to solve driver distraction issues.
FF: How do you deal with driver distraction issues when there is a high turnover in company drivers, especially at service fleets?
LATZKO: The safety program should be better suited to meet those unique challenges. A generic approach to safety, a basic risk assessment, and some training may not be the correct fit; however, an organization with a six-month average employee tenure has the same responsibility with regards to negligent entrustment as a company with a more tenured staff, not to mention an opportunity to save money by reducing accidents through the safety program.
Rather than try the standard approach with a large training schedule designed to cover all aspects of driving, micro-targeting employees with customized multimedia that is short, impactful, and relevant to their specific line of work will have a stronger impact. There is a significant opportunity to use some readily available metrics to help create a message drivers will remember when they get behind the wheel.
SHIVE: First, ask yourself the following question: If your fleet/safety policies are too strict, will that have an effect on further turnover? Most likely, it’s the culture that will influence turnover more than a strict policy. My advice is to set the expectations early in one’s employment with the policy and the consequences, to be followed by an enormous amount of coaching. Make these items part of each person’s performance review, especially the supervisors, and always remember what’s at stake.
FF: How should fleet managers address cognitive distraction?
SHADLEY: Distracted driving comes in three forms: visual, where a driver is not looking where he or she is going; manual, when the driver takes his or her hands off the wheel; and cognitive, where the driver is not mentally focused on driving — they may be seeing the road, but not really comprehending what’s going on.
Interestingly, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) recently issued a rule allowing commercial motor vehicle (CMV) drivers hands-free use of cell phones, as long as the phone is within the driver’s reach and calls can be made or taken by pressing no more than one button on the phone. I was astounded to learn that they allowed this. Hands-free is not risk-free!
Fleet managers can — and should —address this by having strong policies, consistent enforcement, and regular, repeated training.
VARNER: One way to counteract cognitive distraction is by training drivers to have a pre-trip checklist. This helps them focus on their task. Many of us a have a to-do list that we use daily; similarly, drivers should be provided a quick list so they pause and prepare for the trip they are about to take. Driving becomes so second nature and many of us rarely pause to think about what we’re even doing.
Creating an expectation and training process that reminds fleet drivers to prepare can make a big difference.
FF: Many onboard vehicle safety devices potentially may contribute to driver distraction. What should fleet managers be aware of?
VARNER: When buying new vehicles, fleet managers need to consider the new technology that is actually required for the job. The last thing you want is a new feature that contributes to more crashes.
LATZKO: It’s important to ensure you help educate your employees to use any device properly, if they require one to help them safely navigate their route. Reinforce that pulling over, where safe, is the best way to use certain safety devices, rather than trying to program them while in motion.
FF: What types of policies should fleets have for cell-phone usage?
SHIVE: I think there should be strict guidance in a policy about phone usage.
First, eliminate texting. This is a must. I further recommend, at a minimum, a “hands-free” policy, whereby you’re more than likely following local law; however, the best of the best would include a full ban on phone usage. No texting, no e-mails, and no inbound or outbound calls. One should always pull over into a safe area to handle these activities.
I know this is not the most popular answer to drivers and I’m sure it could be debated over and over again; however, let’s face it: We all know that the phone is a distraction and contributes to collisions every day. I just find it difficult to defend cell-phone usage while driving when we all know that it’s wrong and dangerous to do.
SHADLEY: Fleets should have policies that, at a minimum, require drivers to abide by all local regulations. A policy restricting cell-phone use while the vehicle is in motion is even better. Best is a policy where a cell phone cannot even be turned on while in the vehicle, or is not allowed inside the cabin at all.
FF: How can fleet managers prevent drivers from using their personal devices, such as smartphones and tablets, while driving in a company vehicle?
SHADLEY: Fleets should make sure their fleet policies and training make clear that the use of any distracting devices, even personally owned ones, are restricted by company policy. I recommend using a “carrot-and-stick” approach: the “carrot” is showing employees what’s in it for them (such as improved safety, how company cares about them, and retention of driving privileges, or possible awards or rewards); the “stick” would be penalties for non-compliance, such as disciplinary action.
Penalties should be serious, consistently enforced, progressive (more severe for repeated infractions), and, of course, well documented. Make sure drivers know that all cell-phone records are discoverable, and will be requested in the event of a crash.
FF: Is there any type of training that fleet managers can employ to lessen driver distraction?
VARNER: A few pre-trip tips include reviewing the route to walk through the turns and main intersections. Make sure there’s enough time so drivers don’t feel rushed. Also, make sure items are put away so they don’t become distracting. This way a presentation isn’t something the driver will pick up to review if he or she gets stuck in traffic. If a cell phone isn’t handy, a driver won’t be answering it while driving.
LATZKO: Route familiarity and planning are definitely important; however, there are also opportunities for the fleet or safety manager to provide targeted messaging designed to lower the risk of distraction among their drivers. Again, the focus should be very specific because generic does not always have as strong an impact.
Additionally, there is also an opportunity to incorporate some pre-route planning into the same message to make a greater impact, as long as it is specific to your organization, or even to that driver’s role in the organization.
FF: As onboard vehicle technology advances, company vehicles are rapidly becoming mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. What impact do you foresee this having on driver distraction in the future?
SHADLEY: I see positive impacts, such as better route planning, reduced mileage and crash rates, and improved productivity, if drivers can submit orders, reports, invoices, etc., from the field without having to drive back to the office. A risk, or major concern I would have, is that these advances could encourage people to focus on actions other than driving.
SHIVE: Vehicles with Wi-Fi pose some interesting challenges. The first issue that comes to my mind is that passengers will have all the access that they need to keep working. Unfortunately, this is true for the driver and will create the same temptation that they have with devices now. On the positive side, vehicle information will be more readily accessible with Wi-Fi and I could see vehicles virtually “speaking” to each other.
FF: What can fleet managers do to minimize driver distraction as more technology is incorporated into company vehicles?
LATZKO: Again, a policy and reinforcement of the policy that really speaks to your employees is a key step toward reducing distraction. If you or your company is opting to roll out vehicles with technology that can be potentially distracting, this is another opportunity to deliver a message about how to safely use the technology. Describe the specific intent for which it should be used and ask the drivers to adhere to it. The best way to get them to adhere to it is to make it memorable; a way to make it memorable is to target it toward the driver.
FF: What is the feasibility of banning cell-phone use while driving?
SHADLEY: I’d say this varies greatly according to an organization’s culture. If it has a strong culture of safety, employees will likely embrace such a ban. For others, it would be much more difficult to implement and enforce. Obviously, banning cell-phone use is easier for companies if/when laws ban it.
SHIVE: The feasibility is quite simple in my mind. First, you must have top executive management buy in. If you don’t, then work with others and gain allies to present the topic over and over again. Always document your efforts and responses. As a last resort, poll your employees and find out how many employees, and who, has been personally affected by the use of these types of devices. It may take one story of one’s personal experience to make the difference.
FF: What do you think of cell-phone disabling technology?
LATZKO: The University of Michigan Transportation Institute did a 12-week study that ended December 2013. It concluded the devices did limit the amount of calls and texts sent while driving.
Anything that can limit driver distraction and keep his or her focus on the road is worth taking a close look at. So far, our experience has shown that a clear policy around cell-phone usage, with strong reinforcement, is what most companies choose to address cell-phone usage while driving. However, if you feel it fits the culture of your organization, and if you have the technical infrastructure to roll it out, it could be worth trying.
VARNER: Until there is solid technology, I think many fleets are remaining skeptical.
FF: While some devices may contribute to driver safety, others may have unintended consequences and actually contribute to driver distraction. How do you address this issue?
LATZKO: I think it’s pretty self-explanatory: If a device you installed for safety purposes is proven to increase distraction, your company has to decide if the added distraction outweighs the safety concern. Preferably, this analysis would take place before installing it in the vehicle.
If there is a device that is useful for logistics and helps your company be more efficient, but also contributes to distraction, it is important to identify the proper way to use it, where it achieves its intended purpose and does not become a distraction.
Ensure employees are aware of the proper way to use the device, preferably reinforced at the local management level.
FF: How should fleet managers address demographic differences in their driver population? Should they consider special programs to address younger drivers?
VARNER: Fleet managers need to consider how the work culture and job expectations may create an environment for distractions. If management is expecting an immediate call back or for a driver to answer every time, they may need to adjust to be okay with only getting a call back within 10 minutes, so the driver can stop driving. Younger drivers may tend to use mobile devices even more, so we must be prepared to set expectations that doesn’t make in-vehicle cell-phone usage even worse.
LATZKO: This is another opportunity for micro-targeting: Millennials will soon make up 40 percent of the workforce. Communicating fleet policies in a way that makes sense to them will help you achieve your goals.
There is literature available about how to best connect with those born in the 1980s and 1990s, but to cite a few examples, let’s take a look at what most say is important:
- 64 percent say they want to help make the world a better place.
- 72 percent would like to be their own boss, but, if necessary, they want a boss to be more of a coach or mentor.
- 88 percent prefer a collaborative work culture, rather than a competitive one.
- 74 percent want flexible work schedules.
How can you possibly relate this to safe driving? Distracted driving endangers you and others; so focus on their responsibility to help keep the roadways safe and do their part. Emphasize you are here to help them do their job and get home safe — you are a team and in this together. You might even look for ways to incorporate a team atmosphere into your safety program. Consider flexible work schedules and make sure the platform this is delivered on is accessible anytime on all or many of their devices.
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