U.S. roads are becoming increasingly dangerous, despite a great number of vehicles having some of the most advanced safety technology available. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (www.nhtsa.gov), more than 37,000 fatal traffic accidents occurred in 2016, rising 14 percent since 2014. And while accident rates were in decline throughout the past 10 years, they are now nearly identical to 2007’s numbers; that year also saw more than 37,000 fatal accidents.
So, what are some of the underlying causes of the rise in fatal accidents? And what can utility fleets do to promote driver safety and effect positive change in our industry?
The simple truth is it’s not easy to pinpoint what is causing all of these accidents; however, it’s no secret that road rage and distracted driving are two of the greatest challenges today’s drivers must contend with.
Road Rage and Distracted Driving
In a study released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (www.aaafoundation.org) in July 2016, nearly 80 percent of drivers admitted to engaging in aggressive driving techniques, such as tailgating, blocking a vehicle or cutting off another driver. In a separate survey completed by EverQuote (www.everquote.com), 96 percent of drivers rated themselves as safe motorists, but 61 percent of those surveyed then admitted to using their phone behind the wheel in the last month.
Why has road rage become such a problem? One possibility is the fact that the U.S. economy is relatively stable, gas prices have remained somewhat steady and unemployment rates are low – meaning that a greater number of drivers now can travel farther and more often, thereby increasing traffic congestion and causing more frustration for motorists. This also means it is vital to train fleet drivers to remain calm in stressful situations, and to always provide plenty of time for the drivers to get to their destinations.
Drivers also may get angry behind the wheel due to the prevalence of other motor vehicle operators’ distracted driving. Driving while using mobile devices is so commonplace in North America that many people get lulled into a false sense of security and believe they can multitask behind the wheel. But in fact, multitasking is a myth. The brain cannot focus on two tasks at once; instead, it switches rapidly back and forth from one task to the other.
The distractions drivers face can be divided into three categories – visual, manual and cognitive – and those categories often intersect. Visual distractions occur anytime a driver takes their eyes off the road. Manual distractions involve, for example, a driver taking their hands off the wheel to address anything else in the vehicle – such as adjusting the interior climate or reaching for a beverage – and thus slowing their reaction time. Whenever a driver’s mind isn’t fully focused on driving, that is categorized as a cognitive distraction. And when someone texts while driving, they have achieved the distraction trifecta by taking their eyes, hands and mind off the task at hand.
It is important that drivers understand the difference between the three types of distractions and how they relate to their driving capabilities. There is not one type of distraction that is preferable to another, and it’s also critical to point out that hands-free devices and talk-to-text features also are distracting and therefore hazardous to use while driving.
As fleet professionals, we must address road rage and distracted driving within our safety programs. It is essential to champion safety so the men and women who work for us return home to their families every night. We also must strive to practice good citizenship within the communities we touch, and we can start by avoiding habits that put others in harm’s way. Finally, fewer accidents means less money spent on medical costs, vehicle repair expenses and potential legal fees should a fleet face liability issues and litigation. In 2015, the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (https://trafficsafety.org) calculated that the true cost of a fleet accident is more than $24,000 after taking liability, health care and other direct costs into consideration.
How do we accomplish these goals? Because a significant percentage of accidents occur due to human error, a good place to start is to provide fleet drivers with training that best prepares them for road conditions, with driver behavior as a focal point of every training session. As a fleet manager, you can help your employees drive more safely on and off the job by incorporating the following best practices into your safety and training program.
Safety Best Practices
Any strong fleet safety program will include a cellphone policy that explicitly prohibits use of the technology, even when the driver is stopped in traffic. An exception should allow drivers to pull over to the side of the road for emergency calls. Should a collision occur, cellphone records can and should be obtained after the incident to determine if the driver complied with the fleet’s cellphone policy.
Training programs must be current and robust enough to keep drivers engaged over time; results will begin to stagnate or decline if training sessions aren’t always evolving, providing quality feedback to employees and delivering new content. Training also should occur on a regular basis. Many fleets require a training period for new drivers, but drivers also need to receive refresher training at least once per year, and fleets should ensure accurate record-keeping that documents when employees successfully complete training.
If your company isn’t already doing this, another industry best practice is to review all collisions and track each type of collision to identify trends. Tracking accident types is one of the best methods for benchmarking safety progress, and doing so provides management data to determine which types of training may benefit fleet employees.
Using a fleet scorecard is another invaluable fleet safety practice. There are a number of digital scorecard applications available today; the tool tracks driver activity and offers risk assessments based on multiple data points. Use of scorecards is not unlike tracking collision types – doing so is another way to discover trends within the fleet, which in turn makes it easier for management to determine what corrective actions need to be taken to improve safety.
Lastly, support for company safety initiatives should come from the top down and the bottom up – employees will only fully buy in to such initiatives if there also is buy-in from company executives and support from field management.
Challenges including distracted driving and road rage now are a fact of life on U.S. roadways, but that doesn’t mean your drivers have to fall victim to those behaviors. Employees don’t go to work each day planning to act unsafely, and they will want to act in accordance with your company’s safety program when they know their performance is measured, see management involved in achieving goals and understand there are consequences for undesirable behavior.
It is our belief at The CEI Group that strengthening a utility fleet’s safety culture is only possible by changing driver behavior through a mix of online and in-person training and communication. An effective online safety system should provide the fleet with risk assessments based on motor vehicle records results, accident history and safety policy violations, while also incorporating cutting-edge technologies, such as telematics and prescriptive analytics.
Again, it is important to remember that in a fleet environment – where road rage and distraction are on the rise and accidents are costlier than ever – human behavior is the real issue. It is imperative that we get all levels of management involved in safety initiatives, continuously be on the lookout for trends, conduct risk assessments, and provide at-risk drivers with the training and tools they need to learn better habits.
About the Author: Luann Dunkerley is Northeast region manager for The CEI Group Inc. (www.ceinetwork.com), a provider of fleet accident management, fleet safety and fleet risk management services.