Glass Tech — A new distraction or a benefit?

dis-enf-10-ever-officials_lo_res-post-72-enA recent Slash Gear article (click HERE for full article) suggests that a new traffic application for google “glass” device may stimulate a fresh round of discussion about the potential distraction of surfing the web through your eyeglasses as you drive.

The central question is would there be a material benefit to a “heads up display” built into your glasses that:

  • is less distracting than other types of dash board displays
  • offers enough of a practical benefit/advantage without undue safety risk

Evidently, to activate the traffic app, a beta tester of google glass need only say out loud “OK Glass, traffic” to pull up a map of their current locations with the google maps traffic layer superimposed.

This would let a motorist know how bad the traffic stall is in terms of distance from current location and distance to nearest cross street or exit ramp, etc.

The article sums it up nicely:

In question is whether a head-mounted display would prove more or less of a distraction from the road versus, say, a more traditional touchscreen in the center console, or even a head-up display projected onto the windshield.

Additionally, the author reminds us of another recent Slash Gear article; “Google lobbying against Glass driving bans” (Click HERE) which states:

Google is fighting back against threats that Glass could be banned from use by drivers, lobbying US state officials in the hope of more nuanced guidelines than an all-out block on in-car wearable tech. The safety of head-mounted displays like Glass made headlines last year, after one “Glass Explorer” early-adopter was ticketed for distracted driving after being pulled over for speeding and found to be wearing Google’s experimental gadget.

The Explorer in question later saw the charges dismissed by a California court. However, despite some suggestions, the judge’s ruling in January was not on the safety of wearables like Glass while at the wheel, but merely based on the fact that traffic police could not prove the headset had been active at the time.

According to Reuters, Google is lobbying across three US states – Delaware, Illinois, and Missouri – in an attempt to curtail proposed legislation that could severely limit how wearables might be utilized while driving.

The key argument the company has made, it’s said, is that any of the suggested laws would be premature, given the relatively nascent development of Glass and other such devices…

It remains to be seen whether glass and any similar devices would be considered “safe” to use while driving if so much prior work has been done to document how even hand’s free communications may be a material distraction while driving.  One would imagine that the visual and cognitive distraction of reading an electronic image while driving would be more distracting than merely carrying a conversation through “hands free” connections.

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Using cellphone as GPS Legal in CA

PEDESTRIAN-SIGN2According to the LA Times (click HERE) an appellate court ruled that “…Californians may use a cellphone to look at map applications while driving, even if apps are not hands-free.”

A driver from Fresno, CA had received a ticket for using his phone’s navigation system to find an alternative route around heavy traffic.  He fought the $165 ticket and initially lost his bid to have the ticket dismissed.  Fighting an uphill battle, he managed to get a sympathetic ear in superior court.  From the article:

Attorneys for the state had argued the law, which prohibits “using a wireless telephone unless that telephone is specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking,” outlaws any use of a phone that is “hands-on.”

The judges disagreed, writing that such a broad interpretation of the law would lead to “absurd results.”

“Then it would be a statutory violation for a driver to merely look at the telephone’s display,” they wrote in the 18-page opinion. “It would also be a violation to hold the telephone in one’s hand … and look at the time or even merely move it for use as a paperweight.”

Naturally, the key to vigilant driving is to avoid all sorts of distractions like eating, shaving, applying make-up or reading maps, etc.  Distracted driving comes from three basic sources:

  1. Visual Distraction:  anything that takes your eyes off the road while driving
  2. Physical Distraction:  anything that takes your hands off of the wheel while driving
  3. Cognitive Distraction: anything that takes your mind off of your driving duties

EdiscoveryEach of these types of distractions is problematic, and drivers may be distracted to the point of crash by many different things.

The lesson in this instance is that while it may be legal to access apps on a hand held phone because the current law was written before phone apps existed (and was not described clearly to distinguish these as distractions) it doesn’t make it a good idea to fiddle with your hand held phone while driving.

In the same train of thought, it’s not a good idea to let your mind wander by listening to talk radio, but that’s also legal.

Summary

We each share a responsibility to drive with vigilance and discipline.  There may be times when we are distracted momentarily, and sometimes those distractions are necessary (receiving hand signals from a police officer or construction flagger who is directing traffic may distract us from cross traffic, but it’s a matter of juggling our focus appropriately)…..Nonetheless, we should work hard to keep these instances to a bare minimum and keep our focus on the road.

You tell his mommy

Five oft-overlooked driver distractions…

Automotive Fleet Magazine offered a brief article on five key distractions that can lead to crashes, but don’t receive nearly as much publicity as texting and hand-held phones.

Here are some selective quotes from their article (whcih can be accessed by this link — http://www.automotive-fleet.com/channel/safety-accident-management/article/story/2013/10/5-forgotten-driver-distractions-to-wreck-ognize.aspx):

1. Eating Causes Driver Mistakes 
Eating while driving is riskier than talking/listening to a handheld device, according to NHTSA. After reviewing a 2006 crash-risk analysis, NHTSA found that the extended glance length of eating while driving caused a 1.57:1 crash-risk ratio while talking/listening to a handheld device while driving caused a 1.29:1 crash-risk ratio.

2. Don’t Resist a Rest
Drowsy driving reduces response time, which increases the crash risk ratio 4.24:1, according to NHTSA. Drowsiness typically has more to do with time-of-day rather than time-on-task.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA) reported that drowsy driving is two times more likely to occur during the first hour of a work shift, because drivers are not fully refreshed and awake when they begin their day.

3. Living in a Dream World 
In 2013, Erie Insurance Company released its Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which reviewed nationwide crash data between 2010 and 2011. According to the data, police listed drivers as “lost in thought” 62 percent of the time as the cause of vehicle collisions.

4. Limit In-Car Entertainment
Controls, displays, and driver aids are standard driving tools today. After observing drivers who were instructed to perform radio tuning, NHTSA recorded that crash-risk increased after the driver’s eyes left the road for more than 2 seconds. Furthermore, NHTSA research noted that a task should not take longer than 12 seconds.

5. Put a Lid on Sightseeing
Drivers should constantly scan the road, but should not fixate on objects surrounding the road. According to the FMCSA, drivers who fixate on external objects — e.g., people, billboards, and landmarks — are likely to enter into a blind gaze where they are not paying attention to the road.

Making Tough Choices

As a traffic safety professional, I usually try not to “talk shop” at social events. 

On one hand, I easily get preachy about how people should gear up their driving skills: I don’t want to go to more funerals for people I care about because they were killed in a crash.  While I’ve always had a passion for helping drivers be safer, I’ve also seen the consequences of traffic tragedy:

  • I have worked for a man who lost his child in a crash
  • I’ve had colleagues who’ve lost sons and daughters in crashes
  • My own mother died, on the day after Christmas in 2008, when a pickup truck crushed her sedan in half at an intersection.  I also feel bad for the driver of that pickup because he’ll have to live with the images of driving her car off the road, into a drainage ditch beyond the intersection.

On the other hand, most people only know what they hear about on the TV news or read in the papers.  This wouldn’t be a problem if the media covered ALL aspects of traffic safety evenly or comprehensively, but they don’t.  Media outlets are paid to make a profit through high ratings which sell advertising space.  The very best way to “make the news” is to start with the truth and then sensationalize how it’s delivered.  I’m not suggesting that newsmakers misinform, but I believe that they do put a spin on how they tell their stories to make them engaging and enthralling.  This leads to the public becoming hyper-focused about a tiny slice of what’s really going on in the world of traffic safety.  Again, the media reported stories are accurate, but don’t show the “whole picture” – they’re often out of context. 

Take a look at this link — http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Common/Chart.aspx  What’s the most common issue in traffic fatalities?  “Failure to keep in proper lane” resulted in 7,696 funeral services in one year.  That’s terrible, and yet, you’ll not hear about that in the news.

How about this link – http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811090.PDF  In this document, it states:

“Speeding is one of the most prevalent factors contributing to traffic crashes. It reduces a driver’s ability to steer safely around curves or objects in the roadway, extends the distance necessary to stop a vehicle, and increases the distance a vehicle travels while a driver reacts to a dangerous situation. Higher crash speeds also reduce the ability of vehicle, restraint system, and roadway hardware such as guardrails, barriers, and impact attenuators to protect vehicle occupants.”

How many lives would be saved if everyone obeyed the nationwide ban on speeding (i.e. “speed limits” posted in your hometown and on the interstate)?  Similarly, how about if speed limits were enforced as strictly as the IRS audits tax returns?  Do you think road deaths would go down measurably?

On the topic of speeding, have you heard much about the use of “Speed Limiters” (SLs) on heavy trucks?  A study was released in March of this year (http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/facts-research/research-technology/report/Speed-Limiters.pdf); the stated purpose was:

“…to identify the impacts of implementing speed limiters (SL) in commercial vehicle fleet operations. These impacts may be related to safety through a reduction in the number and/or severity of crashes, and/or address operational issues…”

The study included data from “20 truck fleets, approximately 138,000 trucks, and analyzed more than 15,000 crashes.”

The findings showed strong positive benefits for SLs:

“First, in terms of safety benefits, results indicated that trucks equipped with SLs had a significantly lower SL-relevant crash rate (approximately 50 percent) compared to trucks without SLs. Second, the cost of the technology is negligible and would not be expected to be cost-prohibitive for fleets/owners.”

Amazingly, using equipment that’s been largely “standard issue” (i.e. included in all newly manufactured heavy trucks and consequently no added cost) many commercial fleets could substantially reduce their crash rate (by 50% if the study’s methodology is accurate).  However, many safety managers lament that their fleet will not use the devices.  Many express that it’s critical to their productivity that drivers must be able to speed to “make up lost time” in urban areas where they sit in congestion and lose eligible work hours.

There are, arguably, hundreds of additional traffic safety issues that deserve our attention (i.e. roundabouts, automated enforcement, advanced telematics to monitor more safety issues than speed alone, congestion management, 511 service utilization, etc.); however, it all comes down to tough choices.

These are tough choices about what to prioritize.  What’s most important?  What are the top ten issues that we should focus on addressing first?

If you ask the media, there is apparently only one answer – cell phones and texting.  Improper cell phone use while driving is certainly an important cause, but it’s far from the only cause of death and injury. 

During 2011, SafetyFirst processed tens of thousands of motorist observation reports for our 3800+ active clients.  3.81% of all reports mentioned improper cell phone use.  At first glance, that may look like a low number, but what’s more significant is that it represents a 20% INCREASE in complaints for cells/texting over CY2010.  Despite the increase in complaints about improper use of electronics, it remains a relatively minor contributor to the total number of road deaths when split out from the much broader category of “distracted driving”.  

Does that make the need to curb the use of cells for texting unimportant?  NOT AT ALL.  However, I think it calls for some perspective adjusting to properly fit together the mosaic of various driver safety issues.

For example, a colleague recently challenged me on the cell/texting statistics arguing that I was callous about the relatively low number of cell/texting deaths and stated that “if we could save even one life we had an obligation to put all our resources into it”.  I asked if she’d be willing to have a speed limiter installed on her personal car to save a life since speeding contributed to four times the number of deaths than cells/texting alone.  She declined the suggestion preferring to be able to pass slower drivers (who are, I suppose, actually driving the posted maximum speed limit).  [Author’s note:  I appreciate her honesty. Many people would have gone for some contrived response to duck the real issue – we take risks and have gotten used to it]

Despite the emotional spin offered by the media about the urgency of these issues, most people won’t actually commit to improve road safety unless it is to advocate what other drivers need to do to change.  If it means that they have to commit to making a tough choice to change their own driving, they’re less likely to do so1,2.

How will we make a lasting change in issues like cell phones and texting?  I believe that looking at the history of seatbelt usage programs may provide guidance on how we can tackle the cell phone dilemma.

It took a lot of people deciding to wear their seatbelts consistently to make a change over the course of the past thirty years.  In 1983 seatbelt use in the USA was at 14% and it has grown to 85% as of 20103.  The steady change in personal commitment to use seatbelts took:  massive educational programs, special traffic enforcement programs (STEPs), and the cooperation of car manufacturers, local communities and various enforcement agencies.  It didn’t change overnight, and it didn’t happen solely because we banned driving unbelted — it took a commitment from more than one generation of drivers to make a difference.

Similarly, it will take a concerted effort people making tough choices to:  slow down; use turn signals correctly; yield the right of way courteously; hang up the phone; and drive in a focused, self-disciplined manner to further reduce collisions and their associated costs.

Summary

Whether you characterize yourself as a Parent, Teen Driver, Senior Citizen, Professional Driver or a daily Commuter, we each have to make tough choices if we’re going to actually improve road safety results.  We can’t sit back and expect things to change because it’s someone else’s job to drive better than they did yesterday.

Additionally, as safety professionals, my peers will need to continue to guide their constituents based on constructive prioritization – making them aware of all the road risks, not just the sensationalized ones.  So when you see articles about roundabouts, red light cameras, Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations, and such, we’re not ignoring or trivializing cell phones and texting.  We are trying to do our best to deal with many critical issues that lead to real pain and suffering.

Because many people can be manipulated by fear and anger, there’s a great responsibility to raise the bar and really make a difference in the greater community.  This larger community is depending on our leadership to execute a complex, but effective, strategy of reducing road deaths – not “regardless of cause” but because we’ve carefully studied “all of the causes” and made tough choices to prioritize appropriately to save as many lives as possible.

1 – AAAFTS Traffic Safety Culture Index, January 2012 – “…the current traffic safety culture that might be characterized most appropriately as a “do as I say, not as I do”… For example, substantial numbers of drivers say that it is completely unacceptable to drive 10 mph over the speed limit on residential streets yet admit having done that in the past month. (http://www.aaafoundation.org/pdf/2011TSCIndex.pdf)

2 – Press Release by AAAFTS, March 8th, 2012 – “Speeding remains a significant safety threat on U.S. roadways—contributing to nearly one-third of all traffic deaths each year – and while motorists frequently list aggressive driving as a top safety concern, many still admit to driving well over posted speed limits.” (http://newsroom.aaa.com/tag/traffic-safety-culture-index/)

3 – http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811493.pdf

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.

Summary

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.