A city-owned fleet vehicle randomly smashes into a truck parked on the side of the street during a business day. How did that happen? Was the driver talking on the phone? No. Fell asleep? Try again. Medical episode? Strike three.
Explanation: He dropped his phone on the driver’s side floor while using it and couldn’t wait, or even pull over, to retrieve it. So, he stuck his head under the steering wheel to pick up the phone — and boom.
This actual incident in a large city illustrates how distracted driving has passed the point of absurdity, exceeding even those old comedic scenes of drivers shaving, eating, or primping in the mirror. For fleet managers, the liability and accident risks are rising as people stay tethered to their phones — and it appears to be getting worse.
Driven to Distraction
Distracted driving is a major liability and safety risk for public and private sector fleets, said David Worthington, a former government fleet manager and now the director of construction equipment for Morley Builders in Santa Monica, California.
Younger generations who grew up with constant connection via electronic devices are transferring those habits to driving on the road.
“I don’t see any progress being made. It’s too tempting to connect and play with a mobile device. Too many vehicles don’t have an option to allow fleet managers to turn off Wi-Fi access remotely when a vehicle is underway,” Worthington said.
Smartphones deserve much of the blame, but the growing complexity of dashboard screens and interfaces contribute to overall safety risks, said Art Liggio, CEO of Driving Dynamics.
“While advances in driver oversight technologies such as video cameras, cellphone blocking, and other telematics systems have made inroads in reducing certain distracted driving activities, it remains a serious issue for fleet operators,” Liggio said.
At Driving Dynamics, safety instructors work in-person with thousands of fleet drivers. Performance demands pressure drivers into taking shortcuts behind the wheel to get work done on time, Liggio said, and drivers using work-related electronic devices struggle to pay full attention.
“Almost every month, most of the national automobile review magazines include articles on models in which they bemoan the fact drivers have to make multiple selections on a screen before getting to a function that previously could be handled with one click of a button or knob,” Liggio said.
Nathan Schafer, fleet manager for Sandy City, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, overseeing about 400 on road vehicles, said among the younger generation, he sees too many drivers who like to play with their phones while driving.
“Between that and headphones, we see where they are having minor fender benders and not paying attention,” he said.
Such observations underscore the need for constantly evolving solutions as the U.S. marks National Distracted Driving Awareness Month in April.
Technology Creates Safety Nets
During his fleet managing career in the public sector, Worthington helped one telematics provider develop and test its products and advised them on how to adapt them to fleet usage.
“All technology is compensating for distracted driving, not deterring it,” he said. “Distracted driving is an extension of ingrained behavior from growing up in a digital and connected world. It’s easier to prevent an accident with technology than to change driver behaviors. Telematics in and of itself isn’t as beneficial for safety as providing information on braking, steering, and speed.”
Along with alerts and texts, such technology can provide the data to determine if a driver’s behavior warrants coaching and further training.
Among more effective technologies are driver cameras that can monitor distracted movements indicating the use of a phone or device, he said. These cameras monitor facial and eye movements, and if showing signs of distraction, prompt an alert or warning. This would also work to detect fatigue, drowsiness, and/or sleep apnea.
“The best way to reduce liability is to get new vehicles with ADAS [advanced driver assistance systems], cameras, lane departure warning, connected cruise control, and auto-braking. It all compensates for distracted driving by reducing the chances and impacts of distracted driving accidents,” Worthington said.
A bi-directional system that transmits real-time data can track traffic, obstructions, weather, and exterior risks in addition to the behind-the-wheel behavior of the driver, he said. Such anticipatory technology harnesses and connects data to inform and warn drivers and fleet managers. When the technology reaches the point that data streams from multiple vehicles in a vicinity can converge to provide an accurate scenario, then drivers will get the most reliable information to make choices. For example, how large is a puddle in a roadway several miles ahead, how deep is it, and is it oil or water?
“You can determine if it’s dangerous using data from the first car that drove over it,” he said.
Tech Data Creates Learning Tools
Ingo Wiegand, director of product management for Samsara, said a combination of automated detection and AI-enabled dashcams send real-time, in-cab alerts during periods of unsafe driving. These alerts are designed to improve fleet and road safety by preventing accidents before they occur, he said.
“After implementing AI dashcams, we’ve seen customers report fewer accidents, increased driver retention, and even reduced insurance and litigation costs,” Wiegand said.
With new safety precautions becoming more common across commercial fleets, warehousing, and worksites due to COVID-19, the next frontier for safety technologies involve sensor fusion, he said. Sensor fusion combines data from multiple sensors to provide more actionable insights than if sensors were used independently.
“The combination of these data points makes it possible to accurately detect high-risk behaviors and prevent safety incidents in real-time. As more types of sensors come online — and they each get better at what they do — sensor fusion will revolutionize operational safety in vehicles and beyond,” he said.
The key to developing safer driving practices lies in a fleet’s ability to make sense of all the data — speeding, harsh braking, harsh turning, rolling stops, tailgating, and distracted driving — and turn it into actionable insights. Samsara, for example, uses safety scores based on its data reporting, which can be weighted based on measured driving events.
“Safety managers can also leverage these data points to identify patterns in driver behavior and implement individualized coaching plans as needed to improve safety,” Wiegand said.
Samsara has observed much value in the usage of in-cab alerts in trying to prevent accidents. AI-enabled dashcams empower fleet managers to coach drivers in real-time based on triggers of driving events. Dashcams also provide educational footage more valuable and relatable to a fleet staff than safety training videos with actors.
Generating Smarter Data
Kristin Costas, director of product management for Lytx, says its latest technology uses machine vision in its AI algorithms on devices, hardware, and software. The technology applies video and audio alerts to correct driver behavior.
“GPS processing and advanced algorithms, telematics, and infrastructure in one place can stream data back in real-time to the cloud, make decisions quickly, and then those decisions inform our product,” she said. “I would want to know if a driver is on his cell phone and alert the driver, and then send a text alert to the driver and manager.”
AI and machine vision combined with the cloud can look at driving data and identify risks faster. Costas is seeing a growing rate of adoption among fleets of advanced video telematics.
She doesn’t view telematics as a disciplinary tool, but more of a way to help drivers improve their skills and be more engaged in their work. “While there is much focus on safety, there are also a lot of opportunities to highlight the positive,” she said.
The more data telematics can generate, the more accurate the algorithms and behavior patterns become, she says. In just the last five years, the technology has enabled the machine view to replace the human view.
“There is a lot of possibility and potential. The technology keeps getting better. It will be possible to do more models with less data and target behaviors we didn’t think possible before,” Costas said.
AI, Algorithms and Alerts Drive Technology Advances
Sherry Calkins, vice president of strategic partners at Geotab, said telematics and ADAS are integrated seamlessly to help drivers recognize and avoid the risk of a collision before it happens. For example, Geotab recently introduced ZonePro ADAS Plus to its product line.
“This advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) combines a forward-facing mobile digital video recording camera and a free mobile application that loads on your mobile device,” Calkins said.
In another innovation, Geotab’s Nauto Driver and Fleet Safety Platform provides a real-time, AI-enabled safety platform that can help predict and prevent high-risk events. Fleet managers and safety leaders can get real-time access to video and data from Nauto's multi-sensor device to gain enhanced visibility and insight into the safety performance of each vehicle and driver, Calkins said. Such connectivity can “help fleets achieve stronger compliance and reduce risk through machine learning algorithms and can aid in improving driver behavior before an incident occurs.”
The critical components of such systems rely on cloud-based telematics, bi-directional data, and algorithms that generate a deep trove of useable information.
“By processing billions of data points from over 2.1 million connected vehicles, vehicle data is processed and transmitted to the cloud and works in conjunction with the Geotab Drive application,” Calkins said. “This allows Geotab to alert drivers and fleet managers of risky driving conditions and behaviors the moment they occur.”
Bi-directional data enables communication among vehicles, fleet managers, and the Geotab platform. This enables fleet managers to know in real-time when an incident occurs and can activate features such as OnStar.
“This algorithm method allows for Geotab to retain the most detailed telematics data with the least amount of data overhead,” Calkins said, adding that the curve logic can be applied to speed to get a more accurate account of the speed curve. That helps clients determine the minimum and maximum speeds and how long the driver was above the speed limit, enabling fleet managers to determine risky driving behavior.
Two of the most effective ways to ensure safer driving are through real-time interactive coaching tools and gamification. Geotab's GO Talk, for example, provides text to speech technology. Drivers are alerted in real-time, in spoken words, when they break company policies or when driver coaching is needed due to driver infractions such as driving over the speed limit, driving without a seatbelt on, etc.
Gamification is a strategy that can be used to help motivate drivers and get them engaged with their telematics platform, Calkins said. The technology collects, analyzes, and scores drivers most predictive of a crash by using sensors in iOS and Android smartphones that can score data on the driving behaviors most predictive of risk, such as phone distraction, acceleration, braking, cornering, and speeding.
“It helps to motivate drivers to improve their safety performance by measuring them against other drivers and the company’s safety standards,” Calkins said. “Drivers who perform well can potentially receive bonuses and other incentives for their success.”
Overall, the advancing telematics technologies can help systems become more predictive in anticipating human error.
“By conducting a risk assessment, fleet managers can build a risk picture for individual drivers and prioritize those most in need of training,” Calkins said. “This insight can help determine the likelihood of a driver being involved in a crash or incident and help mitigate risky driver behavior.”
No Room for Driver Errors
Few other cities embody the congestion and intensity of New York. The only safe driving is focused driving, so distraction becomes a major concern, says Keith Kerman, chief fleet officer and fleet manager for the City of New York, whose division oversees more than 30,000 fleet vehicles across all city government departments.
“You cannot drive the streets of this city if you are not fully attentive at all times. There is no room for error,” he said.
NYC Fleet has also banned hands-free phone use for city fleet operators, which has proven just as distracting and dangerous as handheld and texting.
The city’s crash tracking system shows 560 crashes in FY-2020 led to injuries and financial claims, which can cost over $100 million per year. Rear-ending is among the most common causes and the most preventable. The good news is under the city’s Vision Zero plan, an effort to push for safety improvements and reduce traffic accidents and fatalities, it has reduced crashes per mile by 10% and saw a 25% decrease in preventable crashes between FY-2019 and FY-2020.
As the largest telematics user in the U.S., the New York City fleet has 23,000 live units installed on vehicles. They capture driver behavior in detail, and the data is used to create reports and safety indexes.
Kerman would like to see a combination of telematics and automatic braking, which are now separate technologies. Such intelligent speed assist can slow a vehicle down based on prescribed driver speed limits.
“The best thing to do is to stop the car from speeding in the first place,” he said. “Speed is the single highest cause of driver crashes. We have the technology now to stop cars from speeding. We could design our vehicles to have live connections to speeding maps we already have.”
As to what comes next in technology, Kerman envisions telematics that not only alerts the driver but takes control of the brake and accelerator. Likewise, fleets need integration of telematics with OEM-built live alert systems across thousands of cars, so operators and managers get the context of an event and not just the fact of it. Another deterrent would be wireless telematics connected to live external facing video cameras providing live stream monitoring. “It’s very difficult to get info from in-cab driver alert systems. We’d like to see more common standards across different systems,” he said.
Blocking Onboard Phone Use
Ted Chen, co-founder of LifeSaver Mobile, says the safety priority should be to get rid of all phone distractions in a moving vehicle. More than one-fourth of all collisions involve mobile phone use, he says, citing the National Safety Council.
“Phone distraction and speeding are the two biggest predictors of loss. If you can improve those metrics, you will see an improvement in fleet safety, according to insurers,” said Chen.
While dashcams and telematics identify and monitor distracted driving in real-time, there are instances where drivers will still use a phone even in the presence of a camera.
“You are only as good as the audible alert is effective. Phone distraction cannot be solved all the time through audible alerts. You have to block the phone. It’s not enough to warn,” he said.
LifeSaver Mobile’s cloud-based app is installed on driver smartphones and temporarily blocks screen access during the drive. Work hours and access times can be pre-set, managing restrictions for individual employees or groups.
“A phone is unique. If a driver wants to use a phone because he or she is addicted, an audible alert will not help them put the phone down,” he explained. By preventing the driver from using the screen, you are frustrating the intent of the driver in the first place, forestalling the need for an alert. “You eliminate the risk before the dangerous event starts,” Chen said. LifeSaver Mobile still sends alerts to violators and can produce daily summaries to the managers of any drivers who have tried to bypass the block or disable the app in any way. The app also can be optionally linked to another piece of software called mobile device management that can prevent attempts to tamper with or delete the app.
“If the app is somehow rendered inoperable, we know that and that is reported to the managers,” Chen said.
From a technology standpoint, the more telematics systems can become predictive, the more they can deter distracted driving, Chen said. That means pulling in different streams of onboard data that can offer a holistic view of driver safety events in context.
“If you can put all the data together in a predictive way so you can spot trends and can warn drivers beforehand, you start to have valuable insights,” he said.
From Training to Tighter Telematics
As of this writing, Fleet Manager Schafer was awaiting a demo of a more advanced system with an AI component that can monitor drivers via video that can even see a driver’s eyes through sunglasses. Downward or sidelong glances are often a giveaway of a driver distracted by a device. Schafer hopes to eventually reduce preventable accidents by 50%.
“We’re well below average in loss runs, but there are places to improve because we have preventable accidents from people not paying attention,” he explained.
In addition, Schafer wants to accumulate data on speed and seatbelt use, based on the principle that if you can address the minor violations, it will prevent bigger ones. Such data could provide trend reports used for driver coaching.
One challenge is to ensure drivers understand telematics and any future AI-based system is about safety, not being a disciplinary “big brother.”
In the meantime, the fleet division has started ordering vehicles with lane departure, blind-spot alerts, Blind Spot Information Systems (BLIS), and collision assistance that actively brake the vehicle in the event of a possible vehicle or pedestrian collision.
“If it works out financially, we could have it in all fleet vehicles operated by a driver-employee,” Schafer said.
A Broader Approach to Distracted Driving
Worthington doesn’t foresee distracted driving slowing down for five to 10 more years, given how many drivers will spend more time on mobile devices.
“We don’t have a handle on this in the fleet sector. We are fighting a population that grew up with mobile devices and social networks. Safety issues will diminish when we get more hands-free tech in vehicles or the vehicles turn into autonomous pods going from point A to point B,” he said.
Even with technological advances, he believes in addressing the human side of the deterrent.
“The best thing is to educate drivers; provide stats and powerful images of families affected severely by someone looking at a cell phone or mobile device for 15 seconds and causing an accident,” Worthington said.