Drake Materials has a no-communications policy for drivers at its 10 plants in Arizona.
Drake Materials has a no-communications policy for drivers at its 10 plants in Arizona.

No one disputes that distracted driving is a major cause of vehicle crashes. Most states have passed laws banning texting. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has issued regulations banning texting while operating a commercial vehicle.

Do these steps go too far? Are we painting all communications with the same broad brush, obscuring much of the detail that promotes convenience, efficiency, and safety? Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board proposed a ban on all cell phone use while driving, but is a total ban necessary?

Before we can answer these questions, we should narrow our definitions.

A significant step in that direction was presented by Richard Hanowski, director of the Center for Truck & Bus Safety at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) at the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Commercial Vehicle meeting last September. His paper, “The Naturalistic Study of Distracted Driving: Moving from Research to Practice” was SAE's prestigious Buckendale Lecture award winner for 2011. It presented research from multiple papers conducted over the last few years.

“Naturalistic” refers to the research examining drivers' behavior in their natural setting while operating commercial vehicles. While most previous studies used simulations or had student observers record actions and anomalies, the VTTI studies used video recordings in trucks with special instruments.

Instrumentation identified changes in steering, braking, and acceleration, while recordings presented simultaneous split-screen views of the driver's head, steering wheel, and dash; out the windshield; and left and right rear-view mirrors.

Researchers identified where drivers' attention was directed, when hands were on or off the steering wheel, what was happening around the vehicle and, perhaps most importantly, what distractions were present. Researchers could examine driver behavior, breaking down actions into subsets.

For example, the broad category of cell phone use was parsed into text messaging, dialing a handheld phone, talking or listening on a handheld phone, and talking or listening on a hands-free phone.

Two hundred drivers making thousands of trips covering more than 3 million miles was sufficient to produce results with confidence levels of 95 percent. The combined research involved 211,171 incidents of distraction, resulting in 1085 crashes, 8375 near-crashes, and 30,661 crash-relevant conflicts.

Texting and dialing

Hanowski presents the relative likelihood of an event occurring while engaged in each distracting task. As expected, when texting while driving, the likelihood of an accident is more than 23 times greater than normal. When dialing a handheld cell phone, there is about a six times greater chance, almost as great as looking at a map (seven times).

Once a call is made, talking on a hand-held phone carries about the same likelihood of an accident as with no distraction. More surprisingly, when talking or listening via a hands-free phone, a driver is less than half as likely to have such an event. In fact, taking a drink from a container or smoking results in twice the chance of being involved in an accident as when using a hands-free phone.

To obtain a copy of the Buckendale Lecture, paper number 2011-01-2305 from SAE, visit http://papers.sae.org or telephone 877-606-7323.

Paul Abelson is a former director of the Transportation and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations and is on the board of the Truck Writers of North America. E-mail ableson@wowaccess.net.

Producer Impact

What does the research on distracted driving mean to a producer who wants to minimize distractions? The data can be interpreted several ways. A fleet manager can prohibit a driver from using any communications device while behind the wheel, or he can be selective in allowing, or even requiring, particular accessories.

Bluetooth wireless or wired hands-free earpieces can allow relatively safe communications, but could be limited to business-related use only. In the same manner, fleets that have not already done so should end reliance on maps or paper turn-by-turn directions and start using electronic GPS navigation devices that provide audible directions.

Drake Materials, of Scottsdale, Ariz., decided on a no-communications policy for drivers delivering concrete from the producer's 10 plants. “If a truck is moving, no cell phone use is allowed,” says David Chavez, Drake's corporate, health, and safety director. “This includes Bluetooth and any hands-free devices. We want our drivers to concentrate 100 percent on driving.

“We have no CBs, and use of company radios is restricted,” Chavez says. “We have a messaging system, but a driver cannot receive messages when driving. There's one button to push to acknowledge receipt of the message, but they have to wait until they're in a safe location to read it.”

Drake's program is only four months old, but results have been outstanding. “Our incident rates were very low before. Now there are virtually none,” Chavez says. “Drivers can still keep cell phones with them, but they use them only while on break.”