Distracted driving: what fleets need to know to minimise the risks

We may be told to keep our eyes on the road and our hands upon the wheel, but in reality there are a swathe of modern day distractions which can draw our attention away from safe driving.

For businesses with fleets, not only does distracted driving negatively impact accident rates and insurance premiums, it can also lead to costly financial and reputational damage. 

In this guide, we look at the four different types of distractions – visual, cognitive, manual and auditory – and outline the best ways for fleet managers to tackle them.

Visual: eyes on the road

From roadside attractions and ‘rubbernecking’ at road traffic accidents to watching an in-vehicle infotainment system, taking your eyes off the road, even momentarily, can be dangerous. In fact, research shows that glancing away for just two seconds can increase the risk of an accident by up to 24 times.

What fleet managers need to know

  • Get a heads up: Vehicles can now come equipped with head-up displays – a projector that beams useful information into the driver’s line of sight so their attention is not averted from the road ahead. This can include speed limits, sat-nav guidance, radio station displays or music playlists. 
  • Monitor and maintain: Driver monitoring systems (DMS) are also being rolled out by vehicle manufacturers. Cameras and sensors are integrating facial recognition technology to monitor the driver’s head, eye and body movements to ensure they are focusing on the road, sending alerts if they’re not. Other DMS, such as the one from Mitsubishi Electric, can trigger the vehicle to stop if alertness levels drop too low or if the driver’s physical condition suddenly changes, due to sleep for example.

Cognitive: you are what you eat

The dangers of fatigued motoring are unequivocal – nodding off at 70mph can mean travelling 200 metres without even realising.

It’s a given that a poor night’s sleep can affect brain function, but the importance of nutrition is sometimes overlooked.

A professional life on the road is often associated with an unhealthy existence due to the sedentary nature of driving, combined with the ease of snacking on food high in fat, sugar and salt. What a driver eats, however, can significantly impact their concentration levels. Consuming high fat foods, for example, can cause the gut to produce neurohormones that trigger tiredness. 

According to scientific studies, motorists who have junk food diets are more likely to be involved in a collision, whereas those who have vegetable-rich or staple food diets typically engage in safer driving behaviours.  

Research has also demonstrated that driving on a full stomach can be as dangerous as drink-driving. Nutritionists have warned that three hours after eating, when our metabolic rate peaks, is the riskiest time to drive.

What fleet managers need to know

  • Put mental health first: Addressing the root causes of an ongoing fatigue problem – from the worries in a driver’s personal life, their lifestyle choices and medication to feeling overworked and stressed – will invariably prove the most powerful antidote. For fleets, this may mean implementing mental health initiatives and wellbeing programmes that focus on tired motoring and nutrition, helping educate employees through actionable advice.
  • Make healthy food more appealing: Vouchers for healthy food retailers might also be considered, alongside gamification, which can be leveraged to boost engagement and monitor nutrition goals.
  • Take a break: Introducing mandatory rest breaks is also crucial. Under UK rules, van drivers must legally take a 30-minute break after 5.5 hours of driving. Employees who drive cars for work, however, are not subject to the same stringent regulations. Brake recommends taking a break every two hours, while the Highway Code also advises drivers to stop in a safe place should they feel sleepy. Technology is available to help manage driver hours effectively, giving fleet managers visibility over how many hours each employee has worked and enabling them to allocate jobs to other drivers where necessary. 

Manual: move away from the ‘phone

According to the London School of Economics and Political Science, smartphone users check their phones every five minutes and 89 per cent of these interactions are a subconscious habit. This can make staying away from the phones a difficult task for many drivers.

Mobile phone use, however, is one of the main causes of distracted driving, resulting in 368 collisions in 2020.

Drivers engaging with a smartphone behind the wheel have more blood going to their brains’ prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex – the areas that deal with attention allocation – suggesting ‘attention overload’.

Although calling and texting while driving has been illegal for some time, the government has recently revised the mobile phone law, banning all activities such as taking photos, playing games and checking notifications.

What fleet managers need to know

  • Prime your policy: Establishing a clear fleet policy on mobile phone use can be an effective measure in preventing employees from reaching for their phones. This should include sections on use, exceptions such as how a driver can call 999 in emergency situations, the consequences of breaching the rules, along with education materials and training. If hands-free phone use is causing distracted driving, consideration should be given to a company-wide ban to minimise risk, with drivers advised to park up with their engines turned off before making a call.
  • Fine tune working practices: If employees are using their phones for work purposes, efforts should be made to improve their working practices. For example, if they have lots of emails to respond to but spend much of their working day on the road, time should be set aside for them to complete these tasks. If they need to contact customers, telematics technology might be adopted that automatically sends them ETAs.

Auditory: ‘sound’ decisions under the microscope

The world is full of ‘noisy’ distractions and for fleet drivers, the music they listen to could be having an impact on their safety.  

One study found that listening to music can increase a driver’s response time by up to 20 per cent. Another revealed the fact that motorists drive faster and take more risks when listening to higher tempo tracks, especially those over 120 beats per minute.

And it isn’t just music that can have an effect on motoring skills. Psychologists have found talking on a hands-free while driving can be just as distracting as using a handheld phone, causing drivers to react twice as slowly to hazards. 

What fleet managers need to know

  • Dashcam risk alerts: While there are no laws to prevent auditory distractions, fleets should still exercise caution. Inward facing dashcams can now help prevent accidents by monitoring and identifying risky driving behaviours. While some may regard such technology as an invasion of privacy, companies should explain the rationale for its use and allow employees to voice their concerns. By explaining the benefits, employers can gain staff buy-in by building a culture of trust.

If you’re looking to manage fleet risk, improve road safety and ensure both business and driver compliance, our Risk e360 system and driver companion app can help. Get in touch with our experts today to find out more.

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