In some crowded session room at the Mid-America Trucking Show, I found myself standing within earshot of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration chief Anne Ferro. I overheard a conversation she was having about on-board displays, warning systems, driver coaching tools, etc. She was wondering out loud whether these devices might be sources of distraction.
She asked a direct question of one particular industry leader about the potential for driver distraction caused by such devices. The answer was a qualified yes, and Ferro pursued the discussion with some interest.
It's interesting that she's asking such a question at a time when truck cabs are filling up with proactive safety systems and on-board driver aids, all supposedly aimed at making drivers safer and more efficient.
Thinking back to simpler times when all drivers had to deal with was an AM/FM radio, those things presented a distraction too, especially with the old rotary tuning knobs. You had to look directly at the radio to find the station you wanted to listen to, thus taking your eyes off the road. I have always felt that radios installed above the windshield were safer because peripheral vision still provided a view of the road while looking up at the radio. Placing them in the dash made us look down and to the right, away from the road.
Then radios went digital and the control buttons became absurdly small. No matter where the radio was, drivers had to stare at the thing simply to find the right button. While it wasn't a problem for me at the time, I now sympathize with drivers that wear bifocal glasses. Adjusting the radio demanded some real contortions.
Today, we have radios, MP3 players, GPS units, driver information displays and more all demanding some share of our attention. Mostly it's a background level of attention, except when making adjustments to the devices. But with active systems, like GPS voices telling you where to turn and keep left and make a U-turn, etc., it can seem like you're walking past a bunch of carnival hawkers.
Some of the current generation of active safety systems, in my opinion, cause distractions of a dangerous sort. Most would argue that when one of these warnings goes off it's for good reason. Perhaps in some cases, but in others, nuisance alarms or "misperceptions" by the system can be positively jarring to a driver -- so much so that the driver focuses on determining the cause of the alarm, which distracts from the task at hand.
In those cases, it's not the act of taking your eyes of the road, but the near instant mental transition from one set of problems to another that is distracting.
When it comes to dash displays that purport to help drivers improve fuel efficiency, all I will say is that some OEs do a better job than others. There are displays that show a simple icon that registers instantly with a driver, and others that have a line or two of text for the driver to read and absorb. That kind of help I can do without.
There are more insidious forms of distraction as well, such as company speed limits, in-cab cameras and systems alerts.
I know of a carrier that bases its fuel bonus program on driver behavior, and one of the disqualifying offenses is to exceed the company speed limit of 62 mph. The trucks are governed at 60, but what about coasting downhill? Drivers can become pretty focused on not exceeding 62 to protect their bonus, at the peril of watching what's going on out front.
And while I realize it's just a little colored light that comes on, what about tire pressure warnings, and check engine lights and brake stroke adjuster warnings and windshield washer low-level warnings and ... All those little lights are cause for worry, some more than others, and the each represents something else the driver has to deal with -- even peripherally.
When the Messenger Becomes the Problem
Robert Waller wrote a story about a World War II pilot flying C47 cargo planes over what was then called the Burma Hump. The planes had to fly high to clear the mountains, but because of the weight and the thinner atmosphere at altitude they needed both engines producing full power. Once, Waller relates, a temperature gauge on an engine showed an abnormally high reading that would require shutting down the engine to save it from destruction. Without the engine, the plane would have crashed -- whether the pilot shut it down or it burned itself up. Faced with two decisions with the same outcome, the pilot chose instead to relieve his anxiety by breaking the gauge -- "throttling the messenger," as Waller put it. In the end, the engine was fine. It was a faulty sensor.
All those things take away from a driver's focus on the principle task, and are in my opinion, unnecessary. Unless the truck is in imminent danger, the warnings can wait until the next stop.
While all these devices and others I haven't mentioned provide some benefit, I wonder where it will stop. Whose system will prove to just one warning light or buzzer too many? When will compliance with some digital directive prove distracting enough to cause some vastly more serious problem?
And at the same time, I maintain that an absurd level of focus on simply driving can be harmful too. We look out the window at the scenery, reach for a coffee, scratch itches in hard to reach places, read billboards, throw things at the radio when whacko talk-show hosts say stupid things ... all these little mental de-stressers are important and necessary to maintain an adequate level of focus.
I think Ferro is right to be thinking about the proliferation of potentially distracting devices and activities in truck cabs. At the same time I worry that the paragons of virtue at FMCSA will over-cam again, and require something like sensors that detect two hands on the steering wheel and eyes focused forward. That would be an equally undesirable outcome.