Driver distractions come in many forms - talking or texting on a cell phone, reading (maps, directions, etc.), reaching for a moving object inside the vehicle, looking at an object or event outside of the vehicle, talking with other passengers, eating, applying makeup, driving angry, fidgeting with controls and loss of direction to name a few. Company accident rates are significantly affected by driver behavior, from seatbelt use to talking or texting on cell phones. Click here for PDF of an Automotive Fleet article earlier this year (July 2009).
Driver distraction was involved in 81 percent of safety-critical events, which includes not only crashes, but also other events such as lane deviations, according to a study on driver distraction in commercial vehicle operations conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. As technologies become more advanced and require more attention, there is potential for distraction-related crashes to increase. The FMCSA, after examining data from studies of more than 200 truck drivers at seven fleets, recently concluded that complex tasks, including the use of technology, while driving leads to a "significant increase risk" of accidents. According to Don Osterberg, Schneider National's Vice President of Safety and Driver Training, "The No. 1 public safety issue we face today is distracted driving."
In this article, we'll address three of the most dangerous driver distractions: Talking on a cell phone, text messaging, and eating and drinking. In addition, we'll discuss how you can recognize a distracted driver and share tips on how to avoid distracted driving.
The most common distraction for drivers is cell phone use. According to the FMCSA, using a cell phone increases the risk of a crash by four times.
According to the National Safety Council (NSC), nearly 3,000 people are killed every year at the hands of a cell phone distracted driver. Consequently, the NSC is appealing to all motorists to stop using cell phones and messaging devices while driving. The NSC is urging businesses to enact policies prohibiting the behavior and asking governors and legislators to pass laws banning it (see Recommendations at bottom of article).
There is also significant risk from a liability standpoint. One of the first steps attorneys who represent victims of trucking accidents do is ask for the driver's cell phone records. In today's litigious society, an accident caused by a driver chatting on his phone is giving an opposing lawyer a "slam dunk." Some trucking companies are banning cell phone use while driving, but enforcement is problematic.
If you must use a cell phone while driving, consider the following guidelines:
- Choose a phone with hands-free operation and memory-dialing features
- If you use a headset with your phone, use one that fits over one ear only so as not to block the sound to your other ear
- Plan your conversations in advance, place your calls when the vehicle is stopped, if possible, and keep conversations brief while driving
- Make driving your priority. Be aware that by using a mobile phone while driving, you may be endangering yourself and others
- While driving, do not engage in conversations that require note taking or complex thought
- At the beginning of a call, make it clear to the other party that you are using a mobile phone and may need to interrupt the call to respond to traffic situations
- Actively compensate for the potential distraction created by mobile phone use - move to slower travel lanes, increase your following distance, and frequently check your mirrors to assess the immediate driving situation
Text messaging and driving is a deadly mix, according to the Michigan State Medical Society. Statistics show that drivers are six times more likely to become distracted and cause an accident if they are text messaging. A recent study by Students Against Destructive Decisions and Liberty Mutual Insurance Group revealed that text-messaging while driving is "becoming as dangerous as drinking and driving in terms of inhibiting one's driving abilities."
An August 2008 Harris Interactive Poll shows nine of out ten American adults believe that sending text messages or e-mails while driving is "distracting, dangerous, and should be outlawed."
No state has yet adopted a universal law banning text messaging and cell phone use while driving, however, 14 states now prohibit texting while driving with many states conforming to this idea quickly. Currently, six states prohibit the use of handheld phones while driving.
The danger is too many people believe they can multi-task while they are driving. Most can agree it's not going to make much of a difference whether a text message is answered right away or within the next 20 minutes. Stay safe and stay text-free while driving. Lives depend on it.
Eating & Drinking
Eating or drinking while driving is another dangerous form of driver distraction. A driver's ability to react quickly to a sharp curve or another driver's sudden stop can be affected because of eating.
How much of a problem is this? Exxon surveyed 1,000 drivers and discovered more than 70 percent eat and 83 percent drink beverages while driving.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) agency issued a Top-10 list of the most hazardous foods to eat or drink while driving:
- Coffee - because even with a lid, hot coffee can find its way out of the opening
- Hot soup - same premise
- Tacos - because any food that can disassemble itself will leave your car looking like a salad bar
- Chili dogs - create a huge potential for drips and slops down the front of clothing
- Hamburgers - from the grease to the toppings, it could end up on your hands and the steering wheel
- Ribs and wings - seriously, what's more distracting than licking your fingers?
- Fried chicken - equals greasy fingers, and you've got to wipe them off while you're driving
- Jelly donuts - impossible to eat without having the center ooze out
- Soda - the combination of fizz in the nose and lids that leak is a recipe for disaster
- Chocolate - unless it's M&M's, there's less of a chance it will melt in your mouth and not in your hands
Learn to Recognize a Distracted Driver
Train your drivers and other workers to always drive alert, defensively, and remain on the lookout for other drivers who may be distracted. According to the ATA, a distracted driver is a driver who may be doing any of the following:
- Using a cell phone or other device
- Eating or drinking
- Reaching for something
- Stopping for green lights
- Switching lanes without looking
- Frequently slowing, speeding up, and slowing
- Mistaking the gas pedal for the brake
- Running stop signs or red lights
- Driving too close
- Drifting in / out of the lane
- Being "honked at" frequently
- Having a lag in response time
- Not making smooth turns
If you find yourself doing any of the above while driving, you are distracted and at a significantly increased risk of being involved in a collision. If you encounter another driver doing any of the above while driving, anticipate trouble and stay out of their way.
- Implement education to emphasize the importance of having eyes forward and scanning the surroundings
- Consider enforcing policies such as no texting or other use of in-vehicle devices
- Support regulation related to driver distraction, such as the text messaging ban or hands-free requirements
To assist companies wanting to educate employees about the risks of driving while distracted, the NSC recently announced that it now has available for purchase a Distracted Driving Resource Kit (NSC Product #32101-0000). To order, call (800) 621-7619 or visit the website at www.nsc.org/product.
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