Distracted driving: human nature or culture problem?
The data is in – and it tells us that driver distraction is still a significant cause of large losses in the trucking industry.
NTI produces the NTARC (National Truck Accident Research Centre) report every year. It draws on the insurer’s large loss claims data ($50 ooo or more) to explore what causes truck accidents in Australia.
The latest report draws from 2021 data and shows that ‘human factor’ incidents accounted for 63.5% of all large losses. These are incidents where a driver’s decision or distraction is the immediate contributing factor. Therefore, addressing driver distraction is likely the best way to minimise such incidents.
The report stresses that “these categorisations aren’t about attributing blame,” rather they’re “about understanding what we need to change in drivers’ working environments to support better outcomes.”
The potential benefits are significant as the data shows that ‘driver inattention/distraction’ is the leading cause of human factor incidents, at around one in six (16.3%). That’s up from 2020 (14.8%), 2019 (14%) and 2017 (7%).
It’s a trend we want to reverse.
What is distraction?
According to the NTARC report, inattention and distraction are grouped because with both, incidents are caused by drivers becoming disengaged from the driving task. The causes are either a specific non-driving related stimulus (distraction) or loss of task focus (inattention).
These short spans of disengagement are distinct from fatigue, which disengages drivers for sustained periods.
Kelly McLuckie, NTI’s Customer, Culture & Transformation Manager, notes that “distraction can be anything that takes you off the primary driving task.”
“That’s important because too many people only consider it as looking at a mobile phone, but it can be so much more.
“It might be getting a text message on your smartwatch about a change to your route; worrying about roadworks; pressure to get to your destination on time; or being mentally or emotionally distracted, for example, worrying about a sick family member.
“It’s important to think about the whole picture and the cognitive load on the driver, as much as what’s physically happening in the cab.”
Technology: only as good as its users
That last point is critical. There’s no doubt that driver monitoring systems and other technologies improve behaviour and safety, but as with any technology, tuning them to your needs and deploying them properly is essential.
“Train your drivers on how to use and interpret their information and alerts so those systems don’t create distractions themselves,” Kelly says. “It’s important safety technology doesn’t become a problem when it’s actually part of the solution.”
When installing any new technology or equipment, think about its function and how to set up a low-distraction cabin. For example, will a new device impact the driver’s line of sight and driving experience?
Next, how can we address the human behaviour element to reduce distraction and improve the value delivered by your investments in driver safety? Here are Kelly’s tips for drivers and managers.
Tips for drivers
The key for drivers is to manage and minimise the number of potential distractions, including:
- Cab setup: ensure your cabin environment is clean well laid out and as distraction-free as possible. “You want to make it as easy as possible to stay focused on the driving task.”
- Pre-planning: safe driving starts before you leave the depot. Plan more than your route; include stops to take breaks and check messages; choose your music or podcasts before you depart and let friends and families know they shouldn’t call or text unless it’s essential. “Simple things can make a big difference. Make your calls on a break. Have your water bottle or snack within reach.”
- Phone management: Turn your phone off or put it into silent mode to reduce the temptation to touch it when you receive a notification – and stow it securely (ideally out of reach). Connect before you depart if you’re using in-cab Bluetooth or an earpiece. “There’s no single industry standard, but you should decide what works best for you and stick to it.”
- Understand your technology: make sure you understand your truck’s safety technology and how its alerts and data can make you safer. If there is an ongoing sound or light, it could be a fault that needs to be reported. “Ask questions; safety systems can make a big difference, especially if you take an interest and learn to take advantage of them.”
- Manage yourself: Some claim that secondary activities, such as listening to music or audiobooks or talking to friends or family, can combat fatigue. This can be so, but if overused or misused (for example, listening with excessive volume), they can create distraction risks. “It’s important to manage yourself. Be aware of your triggers and your physical and emotional state, for example, the impact of energising food and hydration.”
Tips for managers
The key for managers is to create a distraction-free environment. This encompasses organisational and operational changes; here are Kelly’s tips:
Talk to your drivers: if you’re picking up distraction alerts, talk to your drivers about what’s going on in the cab and how you can get set up to prevent them. Encouraging them to share their experiences and techniques to self-manage distraction (and fatigue) at a toolbox will benefit the whole team. “If you let problems slide, it’s potentially going to get worse and worse.”
Empower your leaders: for repeated offenders, it may be necessary to enforce your mobile phone policy. Your leaders may need training or support to have difficult conversations and to carry out performance management processes. “Your leaders have to set the right example – and everyone has to be accountable.”
Train your drivers: with so many systems potentially giving alerts, train your drivers to understand what each one means and how they should respond. “It’s critical to give drivers training or education on the systems in their cab.”
Don’t bother your drivers: once your drivers are on the road, don’t interrupt them unless it’s essential. If you need information, there may be non-intrusive ways to get it, for example, by using telematics for tracking (rather than calling a driver for an ETA). “Some companies text and ask the driver to call them back or call from dispatch, which means they’re creating distractions themselves.”
Use your data: regularly analyse your safety systems’ data to see if there are patterns or repeated incidents. “Incidents won’t go away, but you can use your systems to identify causes and take steps to minimise them.”
Manage your subcontractors: if you use subcontractors, explain your safety systems and operational requirements to minimise risks. “It can be dangerous if they’re running a business in their cab, booking services, coordinating drivers – you need to be aware of it.”
Stay focused, stay safe
It’s no exaggeration to say that reducing driver distraction will save lives. It can also reduce costs, create a better workplace culture and even make attracting and retaining staff easier. NTI’s Better Business Hub has loads of resources to help you run a safer, more efficient and ultimately more profitable business.
“At the end of the day, it’s about getting drivers home safely,” Kelly says. “There’s no reason why you can’t start making a safer, low-distraction driving culture tomorrow. It’ll protect your drivers and can help protect your business too. It really is a ‘win-win’ situation.”