Distracted Driving: Choosing to Ignore the Road

On June 26, 2009, a truck plowed into a line of stopped vehicles on I-44 about 90 miles east of Tulsa, killing 10 vehicle occupants and injuring six others, including himself.   

The driver wasn’t drunk or on drugs.  He wasn’t speeding. The driver didn’t attempt to stop.  The legal settlement was nearly $63 million.

Would you believe me if I told you it was caused by the driver texting? 

(It wasn’t, but would you be surprised if it had been?).

The National Transportation Surface Board (NTSB) determined that fatigue was the main issue (reportedly, the driver had been driving for close to ten hours and had only received about five hours of sleep the night before). 

Would the settlement have been the same if it had been caused by “Distracted Driving”?

Within the past week (10/13/2010), a school bus (with pupils on board) ran straight into a utility pole while the driver reached for his cell phone.  It required a call to the fire department to rescue the children since the downed wires were energized.  According to the news article, the CDL operator was charged with “failure to drive right” and “distracted driving”.  This will likely affect the fleet’s CSA BASIC for unsafe driving, and could contribute to a suspension of the driver’s CDL.

Distracted driving, while a legitimate safety concern, is fast becoming the latest “cause” for safety experts, the press, legislators and regulators to rally around.

Scope of the Problem

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that at least 21% of police-reported crashes involve some form of driver inattention.  In 2008, they have estimated that nearly 6,000 people died in crashes involving distracted driving.  It can be difficult to properly establish “cause” in distracted driving accidents, and the actual number may be much higher depending on how you interpret the data.

Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) has conducted “naturalistic” studies where they analyze continuous video footage of CDL drivers.  They’ve concluded that truckers who text while driving are 23 times more likely to crash or get into a near-wreck than an undistracted driver.  This isn’t surprising by itself, but we don’t really know how many drivers actually text or how frequently.

Additionally, distractions can come from many sources:

  • Electronics such as cells, satellite communication systems, GPS devices, the radio, CD-players, etc.
  • Passengers; dropped items; spilled items
  • External distractions like billboards, other trucks – anything that takes eyes off of the road!

Defining the Issue

Distracted driving is any activity a person engages in that has the potential to distract him or her from their main duty of driving & increase the risk of a crash. There are three main types of driving distraction:

  • Visual – taking your eyes off the road
  • Manual – taking your hands off the wheel
  • Cognitive – taking your mind off what you are doing

Experts may disagree on which of these is “most distracting” or “most common” but each presents an opportunity for disaster.

Distracted versus Impaired Driving?

I’ve wondered how to define the difference between distracted driving and impaired driving.  At first glance, I think I’d say that:

  • Distracted drivers can drive well, but choose to ignore their duty
  • Impaired drivers can’t drive well because they’re tired, drugged, drunk or ill, but choose to drive anyway.

In reality, neither should get behind the wheel, and both choose to endanger themselves and other drivers.

As I’ve continued to think about how these would be treated in court or during a settlement hearing, I’m not sure that they are materially different in how we’d cope with the aftermath of a collision.  In either case, the driver’s own negligence is suspect, and the management team could be investigated for negligent supervision.

Possible Solutions

The good news is that there are a lot of resources being thrown at the issue:  some of the early results look promising.

There are electronic solutions:

  • New software for phones and other devices which restrict functionality while embedded GPS says vehicle is moving more than 5 MPH.
  • Overrides are built in for “passengers” and “emergencies”
  • Allows inbound calls from priority phone numbers, others get dumped to voicemail
  • Some (many?) on-board devices are built to be “numb” while vehicle is in motion

But what’s the real issue we are confronting?  If the driver “needs” to be distracted while driving in order to get loads assigned by dispatch, then would the new electronic solutions really get used?  Most drivers that I’ve met would choose to maintain their livelihood by taking risks over possible safety infractions if they get “caught”.   As frustrating as that question might be, we have to understand whether we are contributing to the problem or eliminating it as managers.  To be clear, I’m suggesting that the cheapest, most efficient solution may not require a purchase order – if we can improve our communication strategies, it may cost nothing at all.

Many fleets are implementing company policies to attempt to address the issue.  Simple, enforceable and well written policies give drivers clear direction.  If it’s easy to understand and follow, there’s a greater chance of voluntary compliance; however, it’s important to remind supervisors to avoid contradicting the policy by their actions.  Management needs to be consistent in “setting the example” and be flexible enough to revise the policy if lessons learned justify it.

Legislation continues to be enacted around the country.  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety constantly updates their state-by-state maps for traffic laws.   Slowly, more states are defining texting-while-driving as a stand alone offence, but it remains a logistical concern over enforcement.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Agency (FMCSA) covers regulatory actions affecting most truckers and private fleet operators.  To date, the emphasis has been to clearly “ban” texting by CDL drivers.  The principal enforcement actions address both drivers and their employers:

  • texting by drivers = $2,750 maximum fine & “Serious Violation” for CDL holder
  • employers  who “abet” or enable drivers to text could face an $11,000 maximum fine

However, this begs the question, does legislating behavior really work? Early studies by IIHS in four states show crashes up slightly after bans on texting put in place (http://www.iihs.org/news/rss/pr092810.html).  This study doesn’t differentiate the type of vehicle and isn’t a reason to “allow” or “tolerate” texting – it just illustrates that a ban may not be the panacea solution some would hope it to be.  Ultimately, it may end up that the “ban” is enforced in one of two main ways:  as a post-collision violation assessed against the driver (reactionary) or as part of a Targeted Enforcement Action where roadside checkpoints look to catch as many violators as possible.

One of the most curious impacts of legislative and/or regulatory enforcement will be the potential impact on motor carrier’s CSA 2010 BASIC score for “Unsafe Driving”.  Getting a violation for texting will contribute to:  a driver’s CDL suspension matrix; and the carriers’ CSA BASIC for Unsafe Driving.


Distracted driving is a serious issue that demands our attention.  Drivers need to be vigilant while driving in order to minimize the chances of injury or violation.  Distraction, like impaired driving, could have very serious repercussions for a motor carrier if a collision leads to litigation.  There are many resources being poured into this problem area.  Some electronic approaches look promising, but as managers, we may have the ability to influence changes within our own organizations at no cost.  The failure to enhance our safety results will ultimately be brought back to us through fines and BASIC scores.