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Distracted Driving Can Expose Your Workers, Too

Posted 10/1/2019

By R. Bruce Wright, CPCU

Here’s something that all drivers need to be aware of. That vehicle you are driving is not your father’s jalopy.

As I have been visiting utilities in this program over the past few months, I have made a point of recapping some major fleet losses we have seen in recent years. Over these past few years, large losses in our utility fleets have been increasing, in collision and overturn claims as well as liability losses. We have even had a few fatalities as a result of vehicle accidents, of both employees and members of the public. This newsletter has published a steady stream of articles on vehicle safety, driver training and monitoring, distracted driving, and the use of mobile devices while driving in its 20 year history. Yet the vehicle accidents continue.

It is worth noting that personal lines insurance carriers are also actively pursuing data on distracted driving, doing additional research and statistical analyses. For example, the Insurance Information Institute or III has reported that 9%, nearly one out of ten, of all fatal crashes are attributable to distracted driving. Add non-fatal crashes and that number jumps up further according to Ana Robic of Chubb. As we have reported in the past, research at Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute has been on the leading edge of this work. Work at VaTech’s TI shows that nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involved some form of driver inattention within three seconds before the event. (More on this report can be found in an earlier article posted HERE.) Although “distracted driving” may include things other than mobile device use, such as eating and drinking, passenger conversations, or simply adjusting controls, it is clear that cellphone use is the biggest culprit. 

More recently, Nationwide Insurance Company has tried to analyze the data they collect through  its usage-based insurance mobile app. By tracking distracted driving behavior, Nationwide is trying to understand which distractions are most dangerous—talking on a headset, for example, is not as distracting as actively texting, which requires drivers to take their eyes off the road and their hands off the wheel. So far it appears that drivers who are actively engaging with their phone are more than twice as likely to have an accident, an alarming discovery considering that the data also suggests drivers are using phones in some manner as much as 20% of the time they’re driving! 

As has been discussed in many prior articles published in RE-marks, distracted driving is a serious safety hazard.  Virtually everyone I talk to about this is aware that using cellphones, texting, and using “apps” on mobile devices are a leading cause of accidents and near accidents. Everyone says they see this all the time on their daily drive to work, with cars wobbling across the driving lane, varying speed from well above to well below the normal flow of traffic, and missing signs, lights, and informational signals.

All my safety contacts tell me that they cover this subject regularly in their monthly safety meetings and in defensive driver training sessions. I am told that drivers are constantly reminded to not use cell phones without hands free bluetooth hookups. Today, most utilities are ordering built in hands free phone interfaces on all their vehicles, including heavy buckets and diggers so that all drivers have access to this option. So. based on what I hear from you, my safety contacts, this subject is covered thoroughly, constantly, and completely, and all the employees know what to and not to do. Yet, as above, the vehicle accidents continue. So why beat this drum again?

Well, here’s something that all drivers need to be aware of. That vehicle you are driving is not your father’s jalopy. And the accident reconstruction business today is not done solely with tape measures and stop watches. As you have heard many times, modern vehicles contain more computer power than did the Apollo moon rocket. Today’s vehicles have computers that can control fuel flow, electronic navigation systems, satellite radios, and in many cases control the electronic steering, braking, cruise control, lane keeping, blind spot warnings and many other functions of the vehicles. And, in addition, they remember what they did and when they did it. 

Today, accident reconstruction is heavily electronics-based, with cars and trucks offering the opportunity for a reconstruction expert to “plug in” to the computer and access its “black box,” providing the ability to learn a host of details about what was going on in the moments before an accident. Furthermore, cell phone providers are routinely asked, and subpoenaed if necessary, for their information on the use of any phone carried by a driver involved in a crash. With all of this recorded data, it is no longer a matter of asking drivers or witnesses to provide their (fallible) recollections on what happened and when, rather it is now a matter of reading an on-board computer memory chip to see the speed, steering angle, brake application and pressure, wheel lock up, and many more details that are stored right in the vehicle. Cell phone service providers are able to tell investigators exactly when any cell phone activities were taking place, including texting, which is widely banned. 

Drivers who first took the wheel when a carburetor was common or antilock brakes were a novelty may not realize this. Internet enabled cell phones have only been around since the mid 2000’s, some 15 years, meaning workers who are older than 35 didn’t grow up with them either. So, while I do not believe in managing safety through fear (It really doesn’t work!) I do think it is valuable to make sure that all drivers are aware of the scope of modern surveillance technology. Everyone needs to recognize that their vehicle is recording their behavior and in the event of an accident, it will replay all those actions to authorized personnel. It is simply not possible to plausibly deny cell phone use when the history is so accessible. Which leaves this question hanging in the air, “If someone’s livelihood depends on having a CDL, why would anyone choose to take a risk that could cost them that credential?”

Editor’s Note: Many other articles on driving issues are available to you at any time, found in the searchable RE-marks Archive, available HERE