Distracted driving 102

by Bruce Richards

Distracted driving is the cause of more collisions, accidents and near misses than can be accurately tabulated. For fleet operators, there appears to be little they can do other than continue to drive home the associated risks and encourage their drivers to focus attention at all times when they are behind the wheel.

But these days we have come to accept – and even insist – that our vehicles, whether trucks or cars, come equipped with many devices that can be at the root of the distraction menace. Take a look around the cockpit of your own car – while it’s warming up, not while driving please – and you will quickly see what the experts are talking about.

The multi-unit CD player, the radio, the iPod interface, the Bluetooth connection, and hopefully not, the smartphone without Bluetooth, are just a few of the devices that come with most vehicles. Then there is the ever-present travel mug, and the fast food lunch that needs to be consumed on the go because time is so short. Each of these in their turn diverts our attention and distracts us from the principal duty we have when driving – paying attention to the road.

And yes – from time to time, I’m among the guilty.

In mid-2011, the Motor Carrier Safety Task Force of the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators (CCMTA) released a study entitled Addressing Human Factors in the Motor Carrier Industry and the report makes an interesting read.

The report addresses a number of factors. I won’t try to list them all, but a principal concern is what the study calls ‘recognition errors.’ These mainly relate to inattention caused either by fatigue or distraction. Mitigation of these recognition errors is a key component in reducing collisions or accidents, according to the study. It states that although drivers recognize when they are overtired, there is still a tendency to continue driving, to fight the fatigue.

So knowledge of fatigue factors alone is not enough. We also need strategies that drivers can use that will positively influence the decision on whether to continue driving or stop for a rest. The CCMTA report dealt specifically with commercial drivers, but much of it could, in my view, apply equally to the automobile driver (like the dad driving 24 hours straight to get the family to Florida for a winter vacation).

For the commercial driver, the decision to continue driving when fatigue has set in is often influenced by scheduling, customer demands, the manner in which the driver is paid, or simply a wish to get home. Any one of these can override the will to pull over for a rest.

The report contains quite a lengthy list of recommendations on how to address the subject of fatigue and these should be understood by fleet managers and incorporated into any driver training program. However, it may not be enough to simply impart knowledge of the risks of driving while fatigued, or to teach fatigue management strategies if the fleet’s scheduling or other factors preclude the driver using that knowledge to good effect.

But there may yet be more to decision-making in certain situations.

A new report on distracted driving led by Dr. Tom Schweizer of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto was recently published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. This report suggests that making a left-hand turn at a busy intersection may be the most dangerous manoeuvre any of us face in driving.

As reported in the Toronto Star, statistics indicate that the most serious accidents occur when left turns are being made at busy intersections, and things get worse when the driver is distracted by a telephone conversation or a conversation with a passenger. Apparently making a left-hand turn occupies much more brain activity than driving straight or even making a right-hand turn. The evidence of this was developed through testing of experienced drivers using a simulator while they were wearing headphones.

For the study, drivers had to make a decision on when to turn left safely at a busy intersection while at the same time answering questions delivered through the headphones.

This situation could approximate making that decision while having a conversation with a passenger, talking on the phone, or possibly even while being engaged with one of the many other distractions referred to earlier.

To cut through the medical terminology, when a driver is in this left turn and distracted situation, something happens in the brain’s decision-making sector and it’s not good. As Dr. Schweizer sums it up, “Hands-free isn’t brains-free.”

PMTC will be presenting a seminar on the human factors involved in road safety during our annual conference in June and it promises to be more than a little interesting.

In the meantime, we all need to reinforce with our people the risks inherent in distracted driving – and cutting back on left-hand turns may not be a bad idea.

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