The perils of distracted driving

Features - Safety Focus

Distractions remain major causes of commercial motor vehicle accidents.

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When drivers spend many hours behind the wheel, it can be tempting to break up the monotony with multitasking. Unfortunately, a phone call, text message or even a sip of coffee can take a driver’s attention away from the road. When a driver is operating a vehicle weighing 80,000 pounds, the consequences can be disastrous. Although laws are in place to prevent truckers from distracted driving, distractions remain major causes of commercial motor vehicle accidents that result in serious or fatal injuries.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines distracted driving as a specific type of inattention that occurs when drivers divert their attention away from driving to focus on another activity. Distracted driving is divided into three categories:

  • Visual distractions are tasks that require the driver to look away from the road to visually obtain information.
  • Manual distractions are tasks that require the driver to remove a hand from the steering wheel to manipulate a device.
  • With cognitive distractions, the mental workload associated with a task involves thinking about something other than the driving task.

It is not hard to identify distracted drivers by how they are driving. Some signs can be as obvious as a driver failing to brake at a stop sign, a vehicle drifting over the centerline, a driver making excessively wide turns or driving at speeds significantly slower or faster than the posted speed limit.

Many studies have shown the dangers of distracted driving, with some researchers estimating that nearly 80 percent of motor vehicle crashes involve some form of driver inattention. The potential for distraction increases in drivers who spend most of their workday behind the wheel, especially if employers encourage truck drivers to perform multiple activities while driving.

Truck drivers might be distracted by a variety of factors:

  • Talking on a cellphone. Federal law expressly forbids commercial drivers from holding, dialing or even reaching for a mobile phone while driving. While commercial truck drivers are allowed to talk on mobile phones using hands-free devices, they are not allowed to make calls or engage in the operation of hands-free phones if doing so requires pressing more than a single button.
  • Texting. Federal, state and local laws prohibit reading and sending text messages for all drivers, including commercial truckers. In addition, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has instituted a law forbidding interstate truck and bus drivers from texting or using hand-held phones during vehicle operation. A driver who violates these rules can face fines or the loss of his or her commercial driver’s license, while the commercial trucking company can be subject to civil penalties of up to $11,000 if it permitted or required the driver to text or use a hand-held phone while driving.
  • Online activities. In many cases, online activities, such as surfing the web, playing games, watching videos, checking email and posting on social media, are covered under the FMCSA texting regulations. The law forbids manually entering alphanumeric text, reading text or responding to text on an electronic device. The law can apply to phones, tablets, laptops and any other electronic devices.
  • Eating meals. Drivers under pressure to meet deadlines might skip required rest and meal breaks, opting to drive while eating full meals and drinking beverages. While this may save time, it also requires at least one hand to leave the steering wheel and some of the driver’s attention to leave the road.
  • Using in-cab technology. Radios, dispatch devices and other technology often are installed in the cab to allow a truck driver to remain in contact with his or her employer. Any technology used while driving should follow the same regulations as other electronic devices: It should not require more than a single press of a button to operate. In addition, displays or monitors must not block the view of the road, should be able to be checked briefly (such as mirrors or speed gauges are) and must be installed no lower than instrumentation in the dashboard.
  • Navigation. Internal GPS and electronic navigation systems are invaluable to truck drivers. However, these devices also have the potential to pull a driver’s focus from the road. Drivers can reduce crash risks by programming locations into their devices before starting their routes, allowing the drivers to examine overviews of their routes (and potential alternatives) to avoid surprises while driving.

In other words, anything other than driving is considered a distraction.

Distracted driving initiative

Currently, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not have a standard that addresses distracted driving. However, OSHA does have a distracted driving initiative in partnership with the Department of Transportation.

OSHA’s message to companies that have employees who drive as part of their jobs is succinct: It is the responsibility of employers to have a clear and enforced ban on texting while driving. OSHA’s General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act, requires “employers to provide their employees with a place of employment that is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.” This is regardless of whether the workplace is in a commercial motor vehicle or a traditional brick-and-mortar facility.

OSHA will investigate complaints where it is alleged that an employer requires texting while driving. The agency will issue citations and penalties if the allegations are found to be true.

The dangers of cellphones

Estimates from the Pew Research Center show that 90 percent of American adults own a cellphone. OSHA equates the delayed reaction time for a driver on a cellphone to that of a driver who is legally drunk. 

The National Safety Council (NSC) 2015 Injury Facts reviewed 33 cellphone use and driving studies, revealing that cellphone conversations while driving increase a driver’s reaction time by 0.25 seconds on average. This coincides with the NSC findings that an estimated 26 percent of all traffic crashes are associated with drivers using cellphones and text messaging.

According to OSHA, to send or receive text messages, drivers must focus their attention away from the road for approximately 4.6 seconds. At 55 miles per hour, that is equivalent to driving the length of a football field blindfolded. While most agree that holding a cellphone to the ear and speaking is more dangerous because of the added factor of only having one hand on the wheel, using a hands-free device still has the driver’s attention focused on the conversation and not on the task at hand. It is safer, but still potentially deadly.

Company policy

Companies should have a policy that prohibits the use of cellphones while driving. However, the policy must be communicated to the affected employees, compliance must be monitored and violations must be enforced. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) offers a free cellphone policy template to help develop your policy.

Not having a policy opens your organization to potential liability. If one of your employees is involved in a fatal accident while on company business and is found to be distracted because he or she was using a cellphone at the time of the accident, especially if your organization does not have an established cellphone policy, the consequences are serious. Numerous lawsuits with multimillion-dollar settlements awarded by juries to the victims of distracted drivers have been documented.

Prevention strategies

Distracted driving is a complicated issue and must be approached through multiple channels. Enacting laws banning the use of cellphones and increasing the penalties for violators will deter some, but not all, drivers. Continued driver education and awareness are vital tools in changing drivers’ behaviors. Distracted driving is a learned behavior. In surveys, young drivers cite instances of observing their parents using their cellphones while driving. Education is the key to breaking the chain of distracted driving for future generations, which ultimately will make American roadways safer. 

Consider the following advice to minimize distractions while driving:

  • Adjust mirrors, temperature controls and the entertainment console when first entering the vehicle.
  • Input the destination into the GPS before embarking on a trip.
  • Stow cellphones in the trunk or glove compartments.
  • Turn off cellphones and have a programmed message informing the caller that you are driving and will call back after you reach your destination.
  • If a cellphone must be used, pull off the road to a safe area to use it.
  • If you stop for food, eat it while your vehicle is stopped.
  • Do not perform personal grooming while driving.
  • Familiarize yourself with driving directions and maps before leaving.
  • Purchase and install GPS mounts that allow drivers to keep their heads up.

These are just a few safety recommendations. But, at the end of the day, the most important thing to remember is that when you are distracted, who is driving?

Commodor Hall is the senior director of safety at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington. Contact him by email at chall@isri.org.