When I asked Judy Cifuni, fleet manager for Bradley Pharmaceuticals, her biggest challenge for 2007, she unequivocally replied, “safety, safety, safety.” Cifuni is not alone. More and more fleet managers rank driver safety as either their number-one or number-two challenge (after the high cost of fuel). One reason for the heightened concern is that fleet managers are reporting an increase in preventable accidents, with the root cause driver distraction. "We have seen a rise in preventable accidents caused by fatigue, stress, or simply lack of concentration," said Vinnue Fugaro, purchasing agent for Henkel of American.

Statistically, more accidents were caused by driver distraction than any other cause, including speeding, failing to yield, and following too close. According to studies conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), some form of driver distraction is a contributing factor in 20-30 percent of all traffic crashes. These distractions include not only electronic devices, but also eating and drinking, dealing with another passenger or child, personal grooming, and adjusting the radio.

Driver Workload Has Increased
Another reason for the increase in preventable accidents is that the workload of company drivers has increased. “Drivers are required to do more in the same allotted time, therefore, they are multi-tasking,” said Jim Anselmi, director of fleet operations & travel for Lorillard Tobacco Co. “This results in their attention to safety being compromised, which leads to increased accidents.”

Multi-tasking while driving has become common, and it is a major factor in driver distraction. Drivers use their “windshield time” to eat, apply makeup, read documents, talk on the phone, and catch-up on e-mails using personal digital assistants such as a BlackBerry. Although the cell phone continues to be the number-one source of driver distraction, text messaging is a growing factor. Drivers engaged in mobile texting spend about 400-percent more time taking their eyes off the road and are 70-percent less likely stay in their lane, according to findings from a Monash University Accident Research Centre simulator study in Australia.

“Our feeling is that text messaging is a very dangerous activity and probably more so than conversing on a mobile phone,” said Dr. Michael Regan, senior research fellow at Monash University Accident Research Centre at the International Conference of Driver Distraction in Sydney, Australia. It is not uncommon to see drivers resting a Blackberry on the top of the steering wheel while using their thumbs to type a text message. A driver talking on a cell phone hopefully will be watching the road, but someone responding to a text message is staring at their hands.

Concern that Driver Distraction Will Grow
Researchers recently completed a four-year, $4-million study — with major funding by the U.S. Department of Transportation through NHTSA — to evaluate how multi-tasking activities while driving, such as tuning a radio, listening to books on tape, dialing a hand-held cell phone, and entering a destination into a navigation system, affects driver attention and performance. Research showed that visual and manual tasks cause far more eye glances away from the road than tasks such as listening to a tape or voice-guided navigation. Furthermore, test subjects who took their eyes off the road had a greater chance of missing an event that could lead to a crash, such as the driver ahead suddenly braking.

There is a concern among some fleet managers that driver distraction may ratchet upward as new electronic devices make their way into fleet vehicles such as complex in-vehicle systems and other handheld wireless devices.

Are We Doing Enough?
The accident rate for fleets averages around 20 percent, with some industries such as pharmaceuticals, even higher. Even fleets with low accident rates are seeing an increase in accident frequency. A key question is, how can fleets keep drivers motivated about safety?

“We have launched just about every safety program available, and our crash stats are low in comparison with other fleets,” said Jackie Barrett, corporate services manager for Valspar. “However, we saw a big spike in crashes in 2006, which indicates there needs to be a renewed energy in managing safety.”

This sentiment is echoed by other fleet managers. "Safety is our top concern," says Oleg Cytowicz, automotive fleet coordinator for Unilever U.S. "We need to ask ourselves whether we are doing enough as fleet managers to train our drivers to operate their vehicles in a safe way."

Are you doing enough to ensure the safety of your drivers? This is a question that all fleet managers need to pose to themselves.

When you have a moment, let me know your answer. mike.antich@bobit.com

Originally posted on Automotive Fleet