Strict driver distraction policies, cellphone blockers, and zero-tolerance mandates will not solve the larger issues of distracted driving in commercial trucking. There are other steps fleets can take first.
Step one is to make sure drivers understand the importance of cellphone distractions and why it matters. Bring them into the solution, suggests Mark Murrell of online driver training provider CarriersEdge.
“The better way is to bring the drivers into the conversation and say, ‘What are the things that are making you want to pick up that phone? And what can we do about it? Here’s why it's important that you stay focused,’” Murrell explains.
Murrell also recommends drivers learn to audit their habits, meaning that at the end of a trip, they reflect on what went well, where the challenges were, and what can be done better in the future.
“That is a better first step than just immediately going to the hardcore policies and the cell blockers and things like that,” he says. “Those things definitely have a place, and you can work them in as needed, but start by having a conversation with the drivers about what’s happening and why.”
Christenson Transportation, which has a fleet of about 275 trucks and drivers, has cellphone-blocking technology, but it is rarely used. Safety Director Barry McGowen says they are reserved for what he calls a “last-ditch effort.”
When a driver has demonstrated several instances of using a handheld phone, a cellphone blocker can be turned on. The drivers volunteer to have the cell phone blocker activated as a last chance to correct behavior and stay with the fleet.
“I think like with anything, it’s a habit,” McGowen explains. “If you break that habit over a month or two, they're curable.
The company has only deployed the blockers in a few instances, and in each case, the driver has changed behavior and is still driving for Christenson.
Stefan Heck, founder and CEO of Nauto, says research has found that looking down at your cellphone while driving is 2,500 times more risky than normal driving, or a 25,000% increase in risk.
Heck ranks several technology options for preventing distracted driving from weakest to strongest. Cellphone blockers, he says, are the weakest option to combat cellphone use.
In many cases a cellphone blocker is on a work phone, but many drivers have a personal phone too. And simply blocking a cellphone from use does not address the many other distractions and behaviors that lead to distracted driving, such as paperwork, hamburgers, drinks, looking at the map, or reaching for objects in the cab.
Heck sees camera systems as a better step. Based on videos captured while a driver is driving, a fleet can implement coaching to correct behavior and habits. The drawback, he says, is that coaching will take time.
The third way, which Heck sees as the best, is by using a computer vision AI system that gives the driver feedback in real time, noting that such systems are already designed into some commercial vehicles today.
Such a system can be on the lookout for drivers being distracted by picking up a phone, looking at a passenger or other object in the cab, and more. The system uses AI to recognize the behavior and issues an audible alert to the driver to correct the behavior.
“I can give the driver the feedback in the coaching and the warning, ‘Hey, put the phone down, pull over to use your phone.’” Heck explains. “Those are the kinds of things we use as feedback in real time as they're driving, and whether or not that records a video event is completely optional.”