Seeing what the driver sees

If you are a veteran of fleet safety, you probably have heard of the Smith System and its Five Keys to Space Cushion Driving. Arlington, Texas-based Smith System Driver Improvement Inc. provides its driver-training techniques to numerous customers in trucking, including some of the largest: Roadway Express, Penske Logistics and UPS. The Smith System teaches that the safety cushion must be extended in every direction whenever possible, so a driver will have time to escape a pending collision.

Drivers are taught smart habits, including the realization that a driver needs to learn to look much farther down the road than his natural instincts – which are geared to walking – tell him to. His eyes need to “get the big picture,” says Smith System President Del Lisk. That means scanning the mirrors every 5 to 8 seconds. How many drivers do that religiously? They also learn that following closely not only puts them at risk for having too little time to react or stop, it interferes with visibility as the vehicle in front often looms large, and blocks their view. And worry about having to react quickly absorbs too much of their concentration.

Now, head west to San Diego, Calif., to the headquarters of DriveCam, which markets a video event data recorder by the same name. DriveCam will fit in your palm and is mounted where the rearview mirror goes in a car. Its recording function is triggered by G-forces produced by “unusual driving.” The triggering event causes DriveCam to store a video of what the driver saw – or if turned backwards, what the driver was doing – and records the forces.

Video and data are downloaded into a computer via a cable so safety directors can review exactly what happened with the driver later. Such technology records many events fleets never find out about and makes it impossible for drivers to be evasive about what happened. Most important, it makes it possible to coach a driver who obviously didn’t see what was coming as soon as he should have.

According to DriveCam, there is evidence that this technology produces a real benefit in crash reduction. Time-Warner Cable’s fleet of 200 vans used 20 DriveCam units in the vans of its highest-risk drivers and saw a 30 percent reduction in at-fault collisions.

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Not long ago, DriveCam managers realized they could use Smith System’s Five Keys to help fleets make the most of their technology. They would review close calls and crashes in light of the behavior the system teaches. This resulted in a strategic marketing agreement between the two companies that allows Smith System to incorporate DriveCam recordings into its training program and DriveCam to incorporate Smith System’s Five Keys into its driver coaching methods. Given Smith System’s estimates of 20 percent crash reduction for fleets using its system, it’s easy to see why the two companies saw value in an alliance.

Smith System typically trains driver trainers. Lisk reports that the larger numbers most fleets train makes the average price for training close to $1,000. Penske, for example, has seeded its pool of 15,000 drivers with 200 certified instructors, which computes to less than $14 per driver. DriveCam President Ed Andrew says that a fleet can lease the complete program for 3 years for as little as $25 per vehicle per month. Some insurance companies reimburse fleets for 50 percent of the cost, Andrew says.

Video event recording comes with potential drawbacks. One is driver acceptance and the consequences on recruitment and retention. Some drivers – even some very good ones – may object to video recording. And litigation is always a concern. Fleets considering video event recording must carefully consider use and retention. Smart fleets apply sound retention policies for electronic control module data, but the danger clearly is even greater with video. A plaintiff’s attorney would practically drool over video showing your driver, who was involved in a crash, making mistakes on the road.

Fleets can mitigate those problems, however, and the training and coaching advantages of video may outweigh the risk. Moreover, it’s also possible that having video evidence might work to your advantage in individual situations where the truck driver clearly was not at fault. Recognize also that defensive driving usually produces significant benefits beyond reducing the number of crashes, including reduced fuel consumption and lower maintenance costs. Cost savings will show up at the body shop, the fuel island and the parts counter.