Eight seconds. That’s how long truck driver Sam Hicks looked down at his phone after getting a text from his girlfriend. That’s all it took for his truck to barrel into the back of a car stopped at a traffic light at 63 mph, killing the 54-year-old driver. It’s 8 seconds Hicks wishes he could somehow take back.
An award-winning video about the 2018 crash from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety video, “Eight Seconds: One Fatal Distraction,” today is used in many driver training courses. It’s a wake-up call that illustrates how just a few seconds of inattentiveness can end a career or take someone’s life.
Texting and cellphone use, however, are only one component of distracted driving that fleets and drivers must contend with in modern trucking.
Cellphones and Other Distractions
“Distracted driving is a huge problem in this country for all drivers — passenger car drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers, everyone,” says Matthew Camden, a senior research associate at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. “With truck drivers, they're working for a company, and it behooves the company to try to protect their brand and protect their employees by trying to limit distracted driving.”
Distracted driving can be broken into four types of distractions: visual, manual, auditory, and cognitive. These forms of distractions can overlap and intertwine, taking the driver’s focus even further from what is happening on the road ahead, to the side, or even behind the truck.
“When you put all of those together, you can have a real problem in terms of distraction,” says Mark Murrell, co-founder of CarriersEdge, an online driver training provider. “There are a lot of different things that can distract and create a visual distraction or a temporary cognitive distraction. When you combine those, you get into real problems.”
VTTI researches many facets of commercial trucking, including driver behavior. Camden explains researchers put cameras, radars, and all sorts of technology in trucks and watch drivers go about their daily routines for weeks, months, or even up to a year at a time.
“What we found over and over again, in our studies, is that the cellphone-related behaviors that are associated with crashes or near-crashes are those things that take your eyes off the road,” Camden says.
Some fleets turn to cellphone blocking technology, policies, and other tactics to prevent cognitive distractions. However, Camden points out, the safety manager must have an actionable policy on cellphone use and hold drivers accountable.
“You can’t just have a policy and not do anything about it,” he says.
Mark Samber, industry business advisor for J.J. Keller, says most carriers have policies about cellphone use. In some cases, personal cellphones are not allowed inside the cab. Some fleets also mount the company cellphone or tablet out of the driver’s reach so the devices are not accessible while driving.
Limiting interaction with devices is key. Commonly, a fleet may send a brief message for the driver to call the next time he or she is safely stopped rather than engaging them on the phone while they are behind the wheel.
Fines for using a handheld phone can be huge for commercial drivers, Samber explains. It’s illegal at the federal level and fines can be up to $2,500 for a driver and $11,000 for a fleet.
While most drivers understand the need to use a hands-free device rather than picking up a phone, that may not really be a solution. Why? Because even a driver using a hands-free device may have to deal with the cognitive distraction of the conversation itself.
What is he, or she, thinking about? The mental effort can also prove a distraction.
Cognitive distraction can come in many forms. Camden shares an example of a driver facing extreme rain or trying to figure out directions.
“What do a lot of people do? Turn the radio down. Or they tell their passengers, ‘Hey, shut up, I need to focus.’ And so that illustrates that sounds can be a distraction to what we’re trying to focus on in a really cognitively demanding situation,” explains Camden.
Murrell agrees that a heavy cognitive workload is a key part of distracted driving.
“You can certainly handle different things and multiple things at once. But as you start piling on, that's when it starts to become a challenge,” Murrell says.
He says a Stroop test demonstrates how complex a cognitive workload can be. The test presents you with a series of colors and names of colors, and you have to say the color or read out loud the color’s name. First, both the word and the color are the same. But the next time you go through it, the word will say one thing, but the color will be different.
“So, it will say brown, but it's in orange text. When you are trying to read that out loud, all of a sudden, it becomes a whole lot more difficult,” Murrell says. When your brain is trying to process and reconcile different things like that, it’s a much heavier cognitive workload.
“That's where you start to get distraction. The speed slows down, the ability to focus on one thing changes dramatically, and that’s basically the source of distraction.”
Technology, whether designed into a new truck or later added by a fleet, means a lot more information for drivers to process while driving and can cause multiple distractions — visual, manual, auditory, cognitive, or a combination.
“Anytime you put something new into a cab, or you’re new into a vehicle, you’re taking away that concentration from the driver and what they should be doing, which is driving,” says Keller’s Samber.
Electronic logging devices, navigation systems, dispatch systems, lane departure systems, and more can prove to be even greater opportunities for distraction.
“Every time something goes beep in the truck, it takes away from what you’re supposed to be concentrating on, the driving aspect of it,” Samber says.
He says about 79% of drivers surveyed a few years ago indicated they have been distracted by either some type of electronic device or something around them that caused them to take their eyes off the road.
Stefan Heck, founder and CEO of Nauto, says added alerts and warnings can become a distraction to a driver. Nauto’s dual-facing camera and safety system is designed to detect distracted and drowsy driving and other risks in real time. So his company approaches it like a doctor adhering to the Hippocratic oath of “do no harm to the patient.”
“We want to make sure that whatever we’re doing doesn’t distract the driver more, because that would go the wrong way. So, we have a real-time risk function that looks at how risky it is at the moment,” he adds.
If the risk is low, he explains, no audible nudge or alert is sounded. But it steps up from there. Say if a driver has been looking at a phone for an extended time, then what he calls “a little behavioral nudge” is used as a reminder. That would be small, subtle beeps.
As the risk level increases, alerts come in the form of voice coaching. A driver is given instructions for distractions such as picking up a phone or taking his or her eyes off the road for too long. In addition to alerting for distracted driving, these same alerts can address risky behavior such as speeding or following too closely.
If there is an immediate threat, such as a vehicle stopping suddenly or a pedestrian stepping into the street, Nauto’s system skips past the subtle and issues more obvious alerts immediately to the driver.
Heck says any such system should be tailored to not be continually beeping and alerting the driver all day. The sweet spot, he says, is for the system to issue an alert every couple of hours, maybe three or four times a day. More than that, is not only distracting but can also aggravate drivers.
“And then of course, it’s really important when you alert, that it is really a truly dangerous situation where the driver recognizes it. We noticed that if we’re doing it right, the driver will actually smile, they'll wave even though there's nobody watching. They wave to the Nauto device because it's like, ‘Thank you, I got it,’” he explains.
Monitoring and Coaching
Christenson Transportation, a Missouri-based truckload carrier specializing in high-value, high-risk, and time-sensitive freight, has inward-facing cameras in every truck of its fleet.
With a new generation of dashcams with artificial intelligence or machine vision, the system now can detect when somebody is on a handheld device, or may be distracted or inattentive, and can provide the driver (and manager) alerts and coaching in real time.
“We’ve got inward-facing cameras that monitor everything from your eyeballs to where your head turns, to lack of movement that is notated as distracted. You’re not focused, you’re not looking ahead, you’re looking sideways, or you’re doing something with your hands,” explains Barry McGowen, safety director at Christenson.
What he has found is that although fleets can now capture a lot of data about driver behavior, someone cannot instantly assume that all that data truly indicates driver issues or distraction. Someone must review the video of a possible driver-behavior incident before moving forward.
McGowen uses the example of a hard-braking incident reported via the vehicle telematics. He does not immediately contact the driver; he first reviews the video. That can reveal the true reasons for the hard braking, such as a deer running out in front of the truck and causing the driver to brake.
“The worst thing we want to do is immediately convict somebody based on what the technology tells us. We’ve got to verify and validate that it’s real,” says McGowen. “Otherwise, the drivers won’t buy into it.”
When it is time to address an issue with a driver, McGowen says it must be approached as a coaching action. He points out that most drivers want to drive for a safe company and learn to better their trade. They take pride in what they do.
“We initially start out with ‘Hey, here are the events we have, or the things that we need to work on, and here are some keys to doing that. Let’s do better,’” explains McGowen.
How a driver reacts to such coaching can be an indicator to McGowen. A driver who always places the blame elsewhere, McGowen has learned, is likely to continue to drive unsafely.
Getting Driver Buy-In
At first, when inward-facing cameras were added, drivers’ reactions were not all positive. Concerned about their privacy, some covered the cameras, while others grumbled that they were going to quit. But McGowen says that changed once drivers realized that they are not being watched in real time. The video is only reviewed after the fleet is notified of an event, as a recording.
“The buy-in that we got once they understood, we’re not big brother, we don’t have the time or desire to watch you drive down the road. It’s only when something happens,” McGowan says.
The result of that buy-in? Fewer alerts are triggered. Now McGowen says there are “almost zero instances, whether it’s wearing my seatbelt, whether it’s distracted driving, cell phone usage, all that stuff. It went away so quickly that it was absolutely amazing.”
In addition, at Christenson, much of the safety performance data is not only reviewed by management, but also shared with drivers in the form of the fleet’s website, radio station, and videos. Content is produced to keep the drivers up to date on the latest trends.
Jeff Martin, vice president of global sales strategy at video telematics provider Lytx, is also a huge believer in coaching and building consensus with drivers.
“Managers need to have the right conversation, with the right person, at the right time, for the right reason,” he explains. “And they need to have that data that’s going to provide that. When you have that, you’re having incredible conversations instead of assumptions. Drivers respect that. And when you ask them for solutions, instead of telling them what to do, that's magical.”
Although distracted driving has been a longtime challenge, and technology now can aid fleets in mitigating and preventing what could otherwise become disastrous situations, the core of addressing distracted driving in commercial fleets is built upon something more simple — people and relationships.
From the top down, companies must stand behind any mantra of safety, putting it ahead of schedules and even customers. That in turn filters down through frontline managers, safety teams, and drivers. All parties involved must share the common goal of doing more and becoming better in the fight against distracted driving.
The ultimate outcome will be more and more safe miles driven.