Debating distracted driving

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We are mining this vast storehouse of information to help fleets improve safety and efficiency, reduce distracted driving incidents and save lives.” –Jason Palmer, SmartDrive Systems

OK: hold on a minute here.

I’m all for cracking down on texting and talking on the cell phone while driving, for it’s a no-brainer that these activities distract vehicle operators – of cars and commercial trucks alike – thus significantly increasing the risk of crashes.

But here’s the problem: more “mundane” activities are getting lumped under the heading “distractions while driving” that I don’t think should be there – especially if, by designating them as such, we’ll be giving police officers the authority to write tickets for such activities.

[Remember, though: texting and talking on the phone while driving remain VERY bad ideas. Here's a good story put together by a New Mexico TV news team to illustrate this point. Be patient: you’ll have to sit through a 15 second Allstate commercial first.]

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. SmartDrive Systems, which provides in-cab video systems to commercial fleets, recently released the results of its latest SmartDrive Distracted Driving Index (SDDI) – a quarterly benchmark of driving distraction rates among its customer base.

The SDDI data is derived from the firm’s SmartDrive Safety program, which uses in-vehicle recorders to capture video, audio and vehicle data during sudden stops, swerves, collisions and other events. Event data is then categorized and scored according to over 50 safety observations points. Then SmartDrive takes that SDDI data and compares drivers in their first three weeks in the SmartDrive Safety program with drivers who have benefited from more time in the program.

The most recent iteration of the SDDI study evaluated more than 3.51 million video events recorded in April, May and June this year, involving 21,456 commercial drivers. It discerned that the incidence of distracted driving among new drivers in the program was 11.8%, up from almost 10.8% in the first quarter of 2010.

But here’s the slippery slope. SmartDrive logged the five most common distractions, according to its research, and noted changes in their occurence from the first to second quarter. Take a look:

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• Object in Hand = 3.9%, down 11%

• Handheld Mobile Phone = 1.9%, up 27%

• Beverage = 1.6%, up 7%

• Smoking = 1.3%, up 30%

• Operating Handheld Device = 1.1%, up 38%

Um … consuming a BEVERAGE behind the wheel is a distraction now? And SMOKING? Whoa, wait a minute here. I mean, it is one thing to be yakking on the phone or trying to type out ‘luv yr mutt’ on one of those Lilliputian mobile device keyboards, but taking a swig of COFFEE?

To quote a severely edited line from the movie Pulp Fiction: it ain’t in the same ball park; it ain't the same league; it ain't even the same dang sport!

And this is not a laughing matter (despite my attempt at near-humor), for SmartDrive is going to provide its SDDI findings at the U.S. Dept. of Transportation at the agency’s 2010 Distracted Driving Summit, scheduled for Sept. 21, 2010, in Washington, D.C.

Here’s something else to consider: according to the very video data pool SmartDrive compiled, sipping beverages and smoking don’t seem to be the leading cause of distraction; nor are they likely to be behaviors associated with what the company terms “near collision” events.

For example, two distractions in particular continue to plague newer commercial drivers: operating a handheld device and using a handheld mobile phone. In both instances, just 5% of the new drivers in the second quarter accounted for the majority of events involving those devices; some 57% of all mobile phone incidents captured and 47% of all operating-handheld-device incidents.

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[SmartDrive, by the way, calls this group “the 5% factor” in its report, noting that 5% of new drivers accounted for 33% of all recorded distracted driving incidents in its second quarter analysis, while 10% of new drivers accounted for more than 56% of all risky driving events in the same period.]

SmartDrive also expanded its study to include analysis of near-collisions by all drivers, along with the behaviors that led up to those events. By analyzing in-cab activity captured on video in the 15 seconds prior to those events, the company’s evaluators were able to observe several behaviors associated with the near-collisions.

The four most common behaviors observed in near-collision events in the second quarter were: drowsiness/falling asleep, running through a stoplight or stop sign, engaging in a lane change (merging or passing) and following at an unsafe distance.

Drowsiness was 23.2 times more likely to occur in near-collision events than in events which were not categorized as near collisions; and running stoplights or stop signs was 13.3 times more likely. But I’d be willing to BET that sipping and smoking were NOT major causation factors in those near-collisions.

Make no mistake, though: this issue of “distracted driving” is very serious and needs to be addressed. But we must also be VERY careful what we designate as a “distraction” going forward, too, or it might very well spark some serious pushback against efforts to get the public to change driving behaviors.

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