Don’t Be Distracted from Distracted Driving!

Don’t Be Distracted from Distracted Driving!

Donald Dunphy
July 2020

We’ve read about it.  We’ve written policies about it.  We may have been guilty of doing it ourselves.  Distracted driving. One side effect from the past few months is most of us experiencing a high level of distraction as a result of living with uncertainty, the rigors of sheltering in place and more recently, the conflicting signals and guidelines about how to reopen post-lockdown.

How does this relate to fleet? Many drivers getting back out onto the road regularly, and as surprising as it may sound, the skills of day-to-day driving may have been stunted after four months of shelter-in-place protocols. Then there’s the added issue of fleet drivers navigating roads with local residents who may be suffering from the same conditions, resulting in their own distracted driving.

A case in point: increased cellphone communication has helped to stave off feelings of isolation for many. Since social distancing is still in effect for many states, cellphones have evolved into a social dependency, including while driving. In Massachusetts alone, transportation officials say the number of fatalities on Massachusetts roads doubled in April, despite a reduction in traffic of up to 50% due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The Facts Are in the Data

In pre-pandemic January 2020, insurance comparison site The Zebra conducted a survey to observe the driving behaviors and attitudes of 2,000 Americans.

  • 37.1% of respondents completely agree that distractions on your mobile device impair your ability to drive safely

  • 28.6% of all respondents admitted to texting and driving as their number one distracted driving behavior, over video-chatting, engaging with work emails, and taking photos or videos.

  • 56.7% of all respondents reported that they eat or drink while driving.

  • 8.9% of respondents aged 25 to 34 said they felt a high degree of pressure to respond to a text message as soon as it came in, and 7.3% of that same age group also felt a high degree of pressure to respond to work-related messages/emails while driving.

  • Of those respondents who completely agree that texting and driving is equally as dangerous as drinking and driving, 39.9% said they have engaged with drinking alcohol while driving.

According to a study conducted by the University of Utah, people are as impaired when they drive and talk on a cell phone as they are when they drive intoxicated at the legal blood-alcohol limit of 0.08%. Cell phone users are 5.36 times more likely to get into an accident than undistracted drivers.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) states that text messaging increases the risk of a crash or a near-crash by 23 times, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports sending or reading a text message takes your eyes off the road for about five seconds, long enough to cover a football field while driving at 55 mph.

Distraction by Definition

Traffic safety experts classify distractions into three main types: manual, visual and cognitive, and cell phone conversations and texting can involve all three types of distractions.

  • Manual distractions are those where you move your hands from the wheel.

  • Visual distractions are those where you focus your eyes away from the road.

  • A cognitive distraction is when your mind wanders away from the task of driving.

It has been known for over seven years through multiple studies that cognitive distraction can occur regardless of whether the driver is using handheld or hands-free phone equipment. This level of distraction continues through in-dash infotainment units which also handle phone calls. It is not the type of equipment that makes a difference, these studies report. It is that the core function of all these is the problem.

Distraction and Fleet

Fleet drivers found at fault for crashes due to distracted driving put themselves and others on the road at risk of injury and death. They also put their employer organizations in jeopardy depending on how prepared and aware drivers are made on the subject. Does your organization have a distracted driving policy? Are all employees mandated to adhere to it, understanding the dangers inherent in talking or texting while driving, and are meaningful consequences in place in areas of non-compliance? Fleet professionals should take time to review what their employee policies on the subject are and address any gaps that present themselves. NAFA has written a Distracted Driving Position Statement to give you full details; plus refer to the NIOSH Page on Distracted Driving at Work for more information.
In 2012, Coca-Cola paid $21 million to a woman injured when struck by an employee in a company-owned vehicle using a hands-free device. Coca-Cola had a cell phone use policy in place but was deemed negligent, nonetheless. It is too late after a crash to protect your organization from significant legal issues and punitive damages if your drivers are found at fault.

Why is a stringent policy necessary? According to AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, drivers know right from wrong, but divorce themselves from responsibility, seeing this as a problem for others. Their findings reveal that over 84% of drivers recognize the danger from cell phone distractions and find it “unacceptable” that drivers text or send email while driving. Nevertheless, 36% of these same people admit to having read or sent a text message or e-mail while driving in the previous month.

Technology also plays a part in combatting distracted driving, ranging from platforms which jam cell phone usage while vehicles are in motion to training modules to support education as a part of distracted driving policy requirements. Examples of these products and services can be found through NAFA’s Online Buyer’s Guide.  The Association also offers a Guide to Risk Management, access to webinars and articles on the topic of distracted driving, and more to keep your focus on the topic and your drivers’ eyes (and minds) on the road.

Distraction: A Clear and Present Danger

 The most important takeaway, however, is that distracted driving has not disappeared. Neither have the dangers and risks that distracted driving can cause organizations, particularly while roads are filled with drivers whose skills may be rusty after months of inactivity. Know the risks, enforce your policies, and make sure they are clear and real for every employee.
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