Few phrases will sound more familiar to a collision investigator than, “I only looked away for a second.” It has been uttered by some of the trucking industry’s most experienced drivers as they recalled the final moments before a crash.
And there’s no shortage of things to distract a professional driver.
Dangerous distractions can come in the form of physical tasks as simple as holding a cell phone, changing a radio station or opening the lid on a cup of coffee, while something like a text message from a dispatcher can easily pull eyes away from the road ahead.
It doesn’t matter what form the challenge takes.
Anything that draws attention away from the surrounding highway can slow responses involving a steering wheel or brake pedal.
The regulations banning drivers from using handheld devices have introduced an important part of the solution.
There is plenty of research to support the approach. Understanding the Distracted Brain, a 2012 paper by the National Safety Council, found that drivers making a phone call will fail to “see” about 50% of what they look at. Put another way, they are far less likely to identify potential hazards. The rules have made a difference, too.
Before B.C. enacted its ban on handheld devices, researchers at the University of Victoria concluded 4.4% of drivers had phones to their ears at any given time.
The share dropped to 1% after the law was passed.
But a ban on handheld devices solves only part of the problem. Even hands-free calls can be distracting. A study completed at Dalhousie University found that talking on a phone of any type will reduce a driver’s ability to detect and identify events.
Results published in the Journal of Safety Research went a step further, suggesting that drivers using a hands-free device are less likely to compensate for the distractions of a call than those who are using a handheld phone.
The calls cannot be compared to a conversation with someone else in the truck cab, either.
Unlike the disembodied voice coming through a speaker, a passenger will contribute to observations about the surrounding traffic, observes Passenger and Cell Phone Conversations in Simulated Driving, published by the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
These remaining threats to safety are often tackled through a combination of fleet policies and technology. Dispatchers, for example, might withhold many messages or discussions until trucks reach their destinations. Software is available to disable company-owned electronic devices when a truck is on the move.
For that matter, drivers can also be encouraged to turn off personal phones and send callers directly to voicemail.
Cell phones are not the only potential distractions in a truck cab. Every time a driver views a computer tablet’s display, glances at some paperwork or looks at something lying in the passenger seat, they can miss an emerging threat.
It might only take a second, but a truck travelling at highway speeds will cover about 28 metres in that period of time.
The best option is to keep objects like these out of sight whenever possible. A tablet computer stored in a briefcase, for example, is less distracting than a powered version in plain view.
Drivers who smoke will also be less tempted to light a cigarette if the package and lighter are stored in a sleeper’s cabinet.
Of course, some of the biggest challenges of all may be more difficult to spot. Drivers can also struggle with cognitive distractions, causing their minds to wander to issues like a sick child or financial struggle.
Challenges like these are hardly unique to truckers. They are a fact of every life.
It is simply more difficult to put the issues to rest when travelling for weeks at a time, or when a job takes you thousands of kilometres away from home.
Formal employee assistance programs often make a difference here, particularly when matched to an open workplace where drivers feel comfortable discussing their problems with supervisors like safety managers.
Relationships like these are not formed overnight, but they will make a lasting difference.
For their part, drivers can be coached in the value of talking to themselves during their journeys. Simply speaking aloud about oncoming threats like vehicles and traffic signals can help to refocus on tasks behind the wheel.
It shows that no matter what form a distraction might take, an open discussion will be part of the solution to make everyone a little safer.
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