Vehicle fatalities rise alongside cell phone use

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Updated Apr 28, 2023
semi-truck rollover crash

I think it’s pretty safe to say that we’ve all been guilty of distracted driving to one extent or another.

Just ask truck drivers. They have a bird’s eye view of folks behind the wheel doing a lot more than just driving. From texting to watching videos, grooming in the rearview mirror, arguing and nodding off, truck drivers have seen it all and have also fallen prey to distracted driving themselves.

But they’re not always the ones to initiate the distraction. Employers and loved ones reaching out to drivers on the road can prove to be a risky distraction. And it can be hard for truckers to refuse either call.

“Phone calls with managers can be very distracting and calls with family can be very distracting too,” Chris Hayes, Travelers assistant vice president of risk control told me during a recent interview regarding the recently published 2023 Travelers Risk Index.

“From moment to moment, it's hard to know when that phone call is going to take a turn you weren't expecting,” Hayes continued. “So to me that's a good indication that if at all such calls should be rare and brief.”

travelers distracted driving 2023 risk index for businessTravelersChanging phone call habits can be tough since those making calls to truckers — particularly employers — expect a driver to answer. In fact, a whopping 87% of employers surveyed by Travelers expect their employees to respond to work-related messages when they’re out of the office during work hours.

Getting in touch with drivers doesn’t have to entail talking on the phone or sending a text. Walmart, CCJ’s Innovator of the Month for April, created a driver app that sends a recorded audio message to drivers that they can hear while driving down the road. If necessary, they can find a safe place to park and call in for additional details, otherwise the idea is to leave drivers alone.

“They have a very important job. It takes a lot of skill, a lot of talent and a lot of focus,” Hayes said. “Let's respect them at their work and let them do it safely.”

Of course, drivers also play a big role in remaining distraction-free. Travelers study found that 31% of employees admitted to distracted driving prior to getting into a crash or collision. That’s up 5% from last year.

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Hayes pointed out that distracted driving can also result from other causes like tiredness, stress and extreme emotion. Still, it’s cell phone use that can be the most troubling. As most of us can attest it’s tempting to reach for a device that can provide a quick bridge to countless things and people around the world for both business and entertainment. In fact, Travelers study found that cell phone use is on the rise.

“Things like updating social media, taking photos, taking videos, and shopping online are continuing to increase. In fact, social media use has almost doubled since last year,” Hayes said.

To help reduce the risk of distracted driving, Travelers recommends that employers have a policy in place regarding communication on the road; train employees to avoid distracted driving; reinforce policies through discipline and rewards; use technology to monitor employees behind the wheel; and have employees police each other when on the road.

When I asked Hayes about monitoring drivers with AI-equipped video he expressed mixed feelings.

“I'm always hesitant to suggest a technology solution for a technology problem. There's often organizational behavioral issues that need to be addressed along with it,” he said. “If you simply go with a technology solution, people can defeat that technology. They can find ways around that. But if you have a solid safety risk management program and an employee engagement program that goes hand in hand with it, then you start seeing results.”

The problem with the all-seeing eye of video monitoring systems is the time often required to review incidents.

“A camera system that will simply record video events and then send it back to a manager to review can work great if the manager is actually going to review them,” Hayes said. “That's one thing we see a lot with telematics programs is the time commitment and the resource commitment to look at the data, look at the events and coach the events which can sometimes be more than people expect.”

Hayes left me with a sobering statistic.

“The National Safety Council has put out their estimates for the number of motor vehicle fatalities in the United States for 2022, and they're estimating 46,000,” he said.

That’s staggering. In fact, that’s up from 2021’s estimate of 42,915. News like that really puts things into perspective.