Cell phones are everywhere, so it’s no surprise that many, if not most, drivers of trucks large, small and in between carry cell phones. According to a recent survey, eight out of 10 commercial vehicle drivers have either a personal or company-owned cell phone or other portable electronic communications device. They have simply become an integral part of every mobile worker’s business and personal life. It’s also no surprise that using one of these devices while driving poses a potential safety risk. Drivers texting or talking on a cell phone are not fully concentrating on the road, the vehicles around them, and the fast changing environment created by speed, congestion and other distracted drivers.
The answer seems simple enough—prohibit all drivers from using cell phones while they’re driving. Regulators tend to like simple solutions, so as of March, 36 states had texting bans for all drivers and 11 banned all drivers from talking on handheld phones. (The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety maintains an upto- date list of state laws at iihs.org/laws/cellphonelaws.aspx.) As is often the case, truck drivers come under even more stringent controls when it comes to cell phone use. Not only have 19 states adopted specific laws prohibiting handheld use by commercial vehicle drivers of all types, but the federal government has issued tough rules banning the use of handheld devices for texting and conversation for those covered by its commercial driver regulations. That means some four million truck drivers can be fined $2,750 for talking on a phone while driving and lose their CDL for multiple offenses. Additionally, the companies they drive for can be fined up to $11,000 if they allow their drivers to use cell phones while driving.
From a business perspective, cell phone use by truck drivers creates a far more serious threat than large fines, exposing fleets to enormous liabilities in the event of an accident involving a driver using a device, whether it’s one issued by the fleet or a personal one. A 10-vehicle accident caused by a tractor-trailer driver checking his phone for text messages resulted in a total of $24.7 million in court judgments, most of it borne by the fleet he worked for. And many more examples of lawsuits involving truck accidents and driver cell phone use are all too easy to find.
Not So Simp le Many fleets already recognize the problem created by driver cell phone use, and that number is growing rapidly as others react to the new Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) rule with its significant penalties. Survey results released last month show the number of fleets with written cell phone use policies for their drivers rose from 62% last year to 80% this year. More significantly, the number of fleets that said they enforce those policies increased from 53% in 2011 to 86% this year, according to ZoomSafer, the company that conducted the survey.
But having a written policy isn’t enough to protect a fleet against FMCSA penalties or liability exposure if that policy only exists on paper. Even claiming to enforce it probably isn’t enough either if that enforcement isn’t a wholehearted effort or demonstrably effective.
“The practical reality is that very few companies are doing anything to actively or passively enforce compliance,” says Matt Howard, ZoomSafer founder and CEO. The company’s survey shows that roughly one-quarter of the fleets contacted are considering active or passive technology solutions, “but it’s still a relatively new issue and this is not an easy problem to solve,” he says.
Start with the diversity of devices that need to be addressed. Today, most fleets rely on some type of mobile device to communicate with their drivers. Many over-the-road fleets use installed devices like onboard computers and terminals that are programmed to limit or even shut down all driver inputs while a vehicle is in motion. Other types of fleets in applications like field service or local delivery rely more heavily on cell phones or portable electronics to stay in touch with drivers. And handheld devices do not change functionality in a moving vehicle, or at least not unless they are programmed with special software and are tied somehow to the vehicle’s telematics system.
The types of devices commonly available add further to the complexity of any policy enforcement. “Feature phones” typically handle just voice and SMS text communications, which means there are time-stamped records for use; but “smartphones” also transmit and receive data, which typically is billed by volume and does not include time stamps. With millions of applications available for smartphones, they also provide greatly expanded utility, meaning drivers might be using them for everything from updating time sheets and expense reports to keeping up with Facebook. Tablets further compound the problem by adding yet more data utility for the mobile worker.
Then there are personal cell phones. Approximately 85% of CDL holders working for over-the-road fleets carry personal phones, according to Howard. And no one really knows how many drivers of non-CDL commercial vehicles bring their own cell phones to work, but given the pervasive use of cell phones in today’s world, the number is probably quite high. How does a fleet enforce a “no-use” policy when it has no way to know if or when a driver is using a device?
As a relatively recent development, the level of distraction caused by drivers using electronic devices is also far from a settled issue since much research is still preliminary and opinions of what’s safe and what creates real risk vary widely. For example, FMCSA has banned text and voice calls from handheld devices, but others like the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Safety Council call for a total ban on both handheld and hands-free devices for commercial vehicle drivers. When even safety experts can’t agree, that can make bans and other restricted use policies seem somewhat arbitrary to affected drivers.
Finally, there’s the issue of productivity. Truck drivers aren’t out on the road for a joy ride; they’re an integral part of a business that needs to maximize productivity to keep costs in check.
Fleets invest in mobile communications because it has a direct impact on productivity, whether it’s through more efficient routing, quicker response to customer service requests, reduction in paperwork, or dozens of other functions that make a driver’s work easier and more efficient. How does a fleet in this modern world of pervasive communications balance that need for productivity with the need for maximum safety?
Given the complexity of the issues, there is no silver bullet that can minimize driver distraction from electronic devices, improve overall safety for both truck drivers and the general public, and protect a fleet from massive liability exposure. There are, however, practical steps fleets can take to begin implementing an effective policy covering cell phone and other device use that can eventually achieve all of those goals.
Some of those steps involve using technology to regulate technology, but probably the first and most important step is one that extends to all safety-related programs.
Telling drivers that talking on a cell phone or texting or even fumbling with an MP3 player isn’t safe isn’t enough. “Drivers tend to know that those things aren’t safe,” says Chris Hayes, director of transportation services for Travelers Risk Control. “You have to build a culture that emphasizes what they need to do to drive safely. And you have to be sure to give managers the same understanding of the risks.”
For example, if a dispatcher or manager calls a driver out on the road, their first question should be: “Are you driving right now?” says Hayes. “If the answer is yes, they need to ask the driver to call them back when they can do it safely. A wink and a nod [from the manager] that you’re driving and talking to me at the same time is not a very effective way to create that culture.”
Hayes also believes it’s important to put the problem of cell phone use and driver productivity in perspective.
“It feels like a new problem, but it’s really the same as other challenges the industry has faced,” he says. “Take speed management. We want the driver to get to their destination on time and quickly, but without getting into an accident. Or hours of service. We want the driver to be in compliance and fit to drive, but we also want the delivery to get to the customer on time. So the tension now around communications and distraction is similar to the ones we face with speed and fatigue management.
“We got product around the country before there were cell phones, and we will in the future even with cell controls,” Hayes says. “There are real benefits [to cell phone use], but we have to learn to use it judiciously, to use the right type of communications for the situation.”
Looking to technology for help, one effective way to implement a cell phone ban may be to replace them with something better, at least in the case of company-supplied devices. “The issue with a cell phone is that the technology is too broad, too accessible,” says Michael Geffroy, vice president of TomTom Business Solutions. “There’s too much information flowing through that device.”
For Geffroy, the answer is to replace drivers’ cell phones with dedicated fleet management systems that can reduce communications to just a few necessary interactions, thereby reducing the distraction. Not to say eliminating the opportunity for violating the handheld device ban and the accompanying fines would solve the problem.
Not only would that move be less distracting, but it would also be more efficient. “Finding a truck’s location with just phones is a complicated task with two people going back and forth,” he says. “And dispatch is far simpler and clearer when you take voice out of the equation. Instead of a highly interactive transaction over the phone with all the errors that might be possible, the basic information is transferred to the driver. And the dispatch can automatically invoke turn-by-turn directions on the device if the driver needs them.”
But that still leaves the thorny problem of how to control drivers’ use of personal cell phones. Just because a fleet didn’t supply the phone isn’t enough to keep it safe from liability claims if there’s an accident involving distracted driving. As the National Safety Council points out, employers can be held legally accountable for negligent employee actions if “the employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment at the time of the crash.” The Council cites case after case where that key phrase was broadly defined in crash cases involving the driver’s personal cell phone.
ZoomSafer’s Howard believes the solution lies in analytics. Just as fleets now commonly use analytical services to monitor driver logs for HOS problems, Howard’s company can audit a driver’s cell phone use by comparing anonymized billing data to vehicle telematics and fleet management system data.
“You can empirically see when a driver is using their cell phone,” he says. “You can see how pervasive the problem is. You can focus your discussions around the facts and think about what steps you can take to modify the behavior.”
So far no fleet has stepped forward to ask its drivers to submit cell phone billing data on a regular basis, largely because of the current driver shortage among truckload carriers, Howard believes. But “simply telling someone not to [use their cell phone while driving] is not enough to get people to stop,” he says, pointing to the increase in distracted driving accident claims in California despite a three-year ban and heavy enforcement effort.
“There has to be some active or passable enforcement strategy,” says Howard. “People change behavior when behavior is measured and others are watching.”
And if there is an accident, a fleet taking such an approach could point to their cell phone policy and their plan to enforce compliance with that policy if there is a “scope of employment” suit. “I’m not guaranteeing you’d win, but at least you’d have a fighting chance in court,” Howard says.
When it comes to managing risk, liability and safety, there is no single solution, no on/off switch, especially with a problem as complex as cell phones and driver distraction. Instead, addressing the issue will take a concerted management effort on many fronts to change ingrained behaviors, to expose dangerous habitual practices, and to balance business and personal needs with realistic concerns for safety. Establishing an effective fleet policy on cell phone use is, in Howard’s words, “more like a dial. And it’s time to dial it up a bit.”