Omnitracs' Road Ahead blog

Putting the Numbers Around Driving Distractions

Highway and industry safety officials each year use April — National Distracted Driving Month — to remind us that anything that takes a driver’s eyes off the road, hands off the wheel, or even their mind off the primary task at hand can lead to a costly, even deadly, mistake.
Most of the attention during Distracted Driving Month gets focused on drivers using their cell phones for text messaging while driving, and with good reason. Studies show that commercial drivers who text are 23 times more likely to be involved in a safety-related event (a wreck, an uncommanded lane change, drifting off onto the shoulder, etc.) than those who do not text behind the wheel. 

But texting while driving is not the only way truck drivers can be dangerously distracted.

Simply dialing or answering the phone to carry on a conversation increases a driver’s chance of being involved in a safety incident by a factor of six. It’s estimated that dialing a phone number or typing even a very short text message causes a driver to take his or her eyes off the road for between 3.8 and 4.6 seconds at a time. That doesn’t sound like much of a problem, at least until you do the math. At a mere 55 mph, a truck will travel more than 300 feet — the length of a football field — while the driver is looking down to tap in a seven-digit phone number or a quick one- or two-word text message.

That’s why the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s rules limit drivers’ use of a cell phone in the cab to touching no more than one button — either to answer the phone (via a hands-free headset or speakerphone function) or to place a call using a one-button dialing function. And drivers can’t even hold the phone in their hand for that one-button push. The phone must be secured within comfortable reach of the driver, but he or she can’t actually pick it up.

There’s no safe way to use a phone behind the wheel

Even with one-touch cell phone operations and Bluetooth or speakerphone setups in the cab, talking on the phone can still be a distraction to drivers that slightly elevates the risk of a safety-related event.  Simply carrying on a conversation on the phone — even while using a hands-free setup — increases the risk of a safety-related incident by 0.4 times. The lesson: Keep phone conversations behind the wheel short and sweet. Make sure they don’t require significant mental and/or emotional engagement that could distract the driver from the task at hand. In other words, discussing family finances, parenting issues, serious health problems, or the latest neighborhood gossip are best left to times when the driver is at home or at least not behind the wheel and moving.

Managing job-related communication

The same goes for trucking firm employees. Telephones and modern communications systems give trucking companies previously unimaginable ability to stay in real-time contact with their drivers. But that ability must be used with great discipline. Just because you can message your driver as he or she rolls down I-70 doesn’t mean you should. Is it urgent? Is the message short? Can it wait until the driver pulls off for a rest?

Drivers, too, need to be disciplined about using the myriad of electronic tools and toys at their fingertips. GPS systems are wonderful way-finders, but they can also become a dangerous crutch if you are so wedded to the GPS screen to find your lanes and exits that you lose full understanding of what’s happening on the pavement in front of you. Similarly, simple things like changing channels on the radio or entertainment system, adjusting the climate control knobs, or even checking vehicle performance data available on some advance vehicle health monitoring systems can get the driver in trouble.

Technology has done wonders for keeping us informed and in contact with one another, but it takes discipline from everyone to keep it from becoming a deadly distraction.