Tech Council Discusses Distracted Driving

PITTSBURGH, PA. — When do the secondary tasks drivers do cross the line from necessary to distraction? Is talking while driving distracting?

Those were some of the questions discussed at a session titled “Cab and Controls: How to Address Distracted Driving” at the Technology and Maintenance Council’s (TMC) 2013 Fall Meeting in Pittsburgh, PA. this week.

“Government has regulations, but we all have to establish our own rules,” said Jerry Hubbell, vice president of business development with Vehicle Enhancement Systems.

Hubbell was moderating a panel that included Julie Kang, Research Psychologist with Human Factors Division at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Dr. Rich Hanowski, director of the Center for Truck and Bus Safety at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute(VTTI), and Scott Barker, vice president of Safety, Recruiting, and Driver Development at Swift Transportation.

Hanowski referenced a recent study released by AAA on the subject that concluded that talking while driving is risky. “We just didn’t find it.” Hanowski said of a study VTTI conducted.

Drivers tend to be on their best behaviour when they know they are being watched, he said, and test subjects in the AAA study were wearing headbands. For the VTTI study, they aimed to create “naturalistic driving” — small cameras placed in the vehicle that recorded driver behaviour for over a year. “They forgot about the cameras,” and that’s important for establishing a behaviour baseline.

That study examined crashes, near-crashes, and crash-related conflicts. They looked at hand-held devices, hands-free devices (ear pieces) and integrated hands-free (your vehicle essentially becomes the phone) and assessed distraction of “just talking.”

“Anything that required the driver to interact in a visual-manual sense, increased risk,” he said, showing videos of drivers fumbling with phones, while others getting caught up with wired headphones.

Integrated hands-free had the least amount of incidents, but when it came to “just talking,” they didn’t find an increase in risk across all three: hand-held, hands-free, and integrated hands-free.

In fact, talking may actually contribute to safety. While it needs more study, the hypothese is that during those early morning hours when your circadian rhythm is low, there’s a cognitive boost when people start talking.

Still, distractive driving is becoming an epidemic. “We’re seeing more vehicles run into the back of our equipment at highway speeds,” Swift’s Barker said. “They are either impaired or distracted. We’re seeing a change in the types of crashes and to me that indicates that distraction has gone up.”

Swift has a strict distracted driving policy, but one that relies heavily on education and feedback. “It’s a combination of direct observation and feedback — that’s simply for us to get out in the yards and look at what drivers are doing when they coming into the yard and when they are driving the equipment around the yard. If they are behaving that way in the yard, that’s typically how they behave on the road.”

Now, he said, drivers get upset when they don’t receive positive feedback.

Swift prefers that their drivers don’t make phone calls while driving and perhaps one of the more forward-thinking approaches by the carrier is that they tell their office staff not to contact drivers when they are on the road — a policy that one passionate audience member congratulated Swift on. “The more we justify those phone calls to the drivers, the more dangerous it becomes. The way to do that is by insisting that the office doesn’t call the drivers — good job!’

Still though, technology in vehicles has created a paradox in that it makes life easier while at the same time takes the driver out of the very act of driving, Hanowski acknowledged. That’s why this has become such a complicated issue, and that’s also why you should expect an increase in distracted driving as vehicles become more technological.

But when it comes to managing distractions, Hanowski said that “truckers — professional drivers — do modulate using their devices when in high traffic. Much more than your average car driver.”

In the meantime, here are some helpful fundamental principals courtesy of Julie Kang and NHTSHA:

Driver’s eyes should be looking ahead;

One hand must be on the steering wheel if performing secondary task;

Secondary task should not exceed that associated with a baseline reference task: radio tuning.

Any task being performed must be able to be interrupted at any time;

Driver should pace the system/device, not the other way around;

Panels should be easy to see.

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