Policies that prohibit employees from using cellphones or being otherwise distracted while driving are so common today that it would be hard to find a utility company without one.
In fact, in 2011 the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration banned the use of all hand-held mobile devices by commercial vehicle drivers. This includes anyone driving a vehicle heavier than 10,000 pounds during interstate business, not just heavy-duty truck drivers with commercial driver’s licenses. Penalties can range from driver disqualification to fines for both the driver and the carrier. Additionally, as of press time, 14 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cellphones while driving.
The real issue for utility fleets, and for any company with vehicles for that matter, is how to measure a policy’s effectiveness. How do companies know if their policy is working?
It’s not easy to figure out, partly because most distracted driving policies are one piece of a company’s larger employee safety program. Aside from post-accident investigations, which should turn up any ill-timed use of a mobile device, measuring the efficacy of distracted driving policies is a little tricky, executives acknowledged.
A 2011 study of distracted driving issues by the Governors Highway Safety Association noted simply that distracted driving communications campaigns and company policies and programs are widely used but have not been evaluated.
Houston-based CenterPoint Energy established its distracted driving policy in 2010. Al Payton, the company’s director of safety and technical training, said he did not have specific data about the efficacy of the program separate from the company’s overall employee safety program, but noted that CenterPoint has had a steady decrease in its number of total incidents. More to the point, the company has seen a change in the types of incidents since CenterPoint implemented a distracted driving policy. “There’s been a decrease in rear-end collisions … which may indicate that our drivers are less distracted,” he said.
Southern California Edison’s policy “prohibits a litany of actions” on hand-held devices, according to Don Neal, the utility’s director of corporate environmental, health and safety. That includes texting and talking and covers smartphones, tablets, PDAs and more. The exceptions are push-to-talk radios and Bluetooth wireless headsets.
“If we have any incident and find that the employee was using a hand-held device, that employee goes into a progressive disciplinary program where the result could be anywhere from a note to termination,” Neal said.
Bill Orlove, spokesman for Florida Power and Light Co., said the company does not have data on its policy’s efficacy but noted that the fleet communicates with drivers throughout the year and at safety meetings.
FPL’s distracted driving policy prohibits all employees from using any hand-held device while behind the wheel on behalf of the company, he said.
“That means no texting, no emailing, no accessing the Internet, etc.,” he said.
Technologies that control and limit the use of mobile devices by drivers are giving fleet managers more proactive ways to enforce policies.
The most common systems plug in to the vehicle’s onboard diagnostics port and work with Bluetooth-enabled devices to block texting or most any use of a mobile device once the vehicle is in motion.
Telogis’ DriveSafe program, for example, is an add-on option that can be used in conjunction with Telogis’ telematics applications and connect to a driver’s device. It works with Android and iOS applications.
“It ensures that the driver is not distracted,” said Erin Cave, vice president of product management.
FleetSafer, from Aegis Mobility, and Kyrus Mobile are two other systems. Additionally, the Federal Communications Commission has a Distracted Driving Information Clearinghouse that provides additional sources and services. Visit www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/distracted-driving-information-clearinghouse.
The issue, executives said, comes down to balancing employee safety and productivity. Fleets are going to have to find the balance between the productivity opportunities available with today’s communication technologies and the obligation to provide their employees a safe workplace. And for those who spend their days on the road, a safe workplace means a safe vehicle.
About the Author: Jim Galligan has been covering the commercial truck transportation sector for more than 30 years and has extensive experience covering the utility fleet market. In addition to writing and editing for magazines, his background also includes writing for daily newspapers, trade associations and corporations.
Photo: Courtesy of Jean Anderson/Southern California Edison