Omnitracs' Road Ahead blog

Distracted Driving Awareness Month 2021: Keep drivers — and your business brand — out of the courtroom

Don Osterberg
Don Osterberg
Safety Advisor, Omnitracs

If 100 people were killed in a commercial airline crash every week, none of us would fly. Yet, we lose nearly 100 people every week in this country to commercial vehicle crashes, and there is little public awareness of the reality that plays out on the highways of our country every day.

Like many tragedies, we remain blissfully unaware of the human cost of distracted driving unless we, or someone we love, come face-to-face with the dangers. The transportation sector must push for advocacy and awareness around this epidemic. Distracted Driving Awareness Month is the perfect time to accomplish that.

As a retired fleet executive specializing in safety and driver training, I've been immersed in the realities of inattentive or distracted driving and the common behaviors that both professional and automobile drivers exhibit that lead to severe ramifications, destroyed businesses, and millions upon millions in litigation costs. As transportation professionals, we have a moral obligation to the society with whom we share our workplace to be as safe as we can be. We also have a financial imperative to our company to be as safe as possible because safety does pay.

What safety leaders need to understand about litigation practices

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As an industry, we're appropriately focused on nuclear verdicts in post-crash litigation and the skyrocketing insurance premiums that result from those verdicts. Our hyper-fixation on these verdicts stems from a highly rational fear of being brought into the courtroom and being found at fault for a collision, causing our premiums to go up and hurting — or destroying — our business name in the process.

In the event of a collision involving a commercial vehicle in your fleet, plaintiff attorneys attempt to prove you're an incompetent safety leader or that you're consciously indifferent to the safety implications of the decisions you have or haven’t made. In a deposition, a plaintiff attorney will start by asking if you're aware that many carriers are using video-based safety and are seeing significant reductions in incidents and crash rates. If you say you're not aware, they will assert that you're incompetent. But if you were aware but chose to do nothing, they will argue that you were consciously indifferent and putting company profitability ahead of safety.

Sometimes fleet leaders will decide not to roll out video safety technology to their entire fleet. What often happens is that the vehicles that don't have cameras get into a crash, and that's where these companies find trouble. A plaintiff attorney will ask if you saw value in using it for one truck, why not the others? Additionally, as part of the evidence discovery process, plaintiffs also ask for cell phone records to know if the driver was using a cell phone before crashing.

We must debunk the misguided theory that many carriers have that if the Department of Transportation or Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration doesn't require it, plaintiff attorneys can't hold it against carriers that don't implement effective safety programs. Well, that's wrong. They absolutely can and will use it against you. Motor carriers need to understand this risk is real. It is not enough to only remain legally compliant. Carriers must go beyond compliance. Innovators lead regulators, and they always will.

Cell phone use is a major distraction, but it's not the only one

Being professionals, commercial drivers normally hold themselves to a higher standard of driving behavior. As such, they recognize that using a cell phone while driving represents a considerable risk.

What drivers often struggle with is recognizing another significant distractive behavior — cognitive distraction. In the cab, a cognitive distraction is anything that takes your mind off driving. It can encompass everything from talking on the phone to adjusting your podcast playlist. When our minds are distracted, we can't entirely focus on the road. As a society, we've been led to believe that multi-tasking is an attainable skill, but the reality is we are not wired to multi-task. As Harvard Business Review states, half a century of scientific research confirms multitaskers miss essential information.

There is a clear distinction between a cognitive distraction, like taking a phone call while driving through a construction site, and having a passenger in the cab with you. If we have an adult passenger in the truck, we have shared situational awareness. In a dangerous situation, the passenger will either stop talking to allow the driver to focus on the hazardous situation, or the passenger will alert the driver to the risk. If a driver is talking to someone on their phone, the person they're talking with has no idea the driver is approaching a high-risk situation. The CB radio is another distinctive example here. When appropriately used, drivers can alert other drivers of risks they encountered on the road, like black ice, to enable drivers to reduce their speed and prepare for the dangers ahead. Both these examples establish that not all conversations are harmful or dangerous, but we must be selective about how, when, and why conversations occur.

Responsibility is not only behind the wheel

Safety leaders and carriers must influence the establishment of a strong safety culture for their business. As such, an effective safety program is one that not only prioritizes driver education but also educates families, spouses, and back-office personnel on distracted driving risks.

It's equally essential for executives to create and lead a safety culture within a motor carrier. You can effectively do this by emphasizing to drivers that your safety program is just as much for their benefit as the public's benefit. For a safety culture to truly be influential, back-office staff also need to ensure they never call drivers while operating a vehicle.

Lastly, investing in video-based safety gives fleet safety leaders near real-time visibility into driving behaviors that enable focused coaching and training to reduce crashes and the conditions that lead to nuclear verdicts in post-crash litigation. With video technology, you can get granular with the proactive feedback you provide drivers on their positive driving behaviors and the behaviors they need to improve. Additionally, you can protect innocent drivers with a reliable video witness to every event.

The bottom line is clear—the negative trend in truck-involved fatality and injury crashes is unacceptable. As transportation professionals, we must do more and be better. We collectively own the safety performance of our industry. We can do better. We can put the distracted driving genie back in the bottle. For those who believe it's too hard — it's not. Let's work to eliminate distracted driving. It can and must be done.

I wish all drivers and transportation professionals a productive month and a safe year! For more Distracted Driving Awareness Month coverage, check out this blog post from Omnitracs General Manager of Transportation Intelligence Jason Palmer. You can also download this kit for beneficial resources and information on distracted driving prevention.