An Employers Look into Transportation Safety

According to the Centers for Disease Control, no single aspect the work day could be more dangerous for the average employee than driving. Beating out injuries related to slips and falls, and homicide, the largest percentage of work-related fatalities came from individuals involved in motor vehicle accidents. “Roadway crashes,” they say, “led all other causes, making up 22% of workplace deaths.”

While the CDC article itself is from 2004, and cites data collected between 1992 and 2001, this shouldn’t give employers solace or reason to believe that the problem doesn’t still exist ten years later. If anything, even with increasing awareness of road safety and seat belt campaigns, PDA and now cell phone usage have arisen as new distraction factors in the driving mix that have kept work-related road fatality rates stagnant at best and increasing at worst. Let’s start by taking a look at some of the leading causes of roadway deaths and then talk about some solutions employers have at their disposal.

The Numbers

Today, the general consensus about driving while using a cell phone recognizes the dangers of such an activity; this comes as no surprise as the capabilities of mobile devices have constantly evolved, and activities like browsing the web, texting, receiving and sending emails, undoubtedly take more attention, especially visually, than simply making a call. However, this opinion evolved over time, and even just a decade or so ago the outlook was a bit different: In a 2003 survey on distracted and drowsy driving, conducted by the National Highway Traffic Administration, less than half of drivers surveyed considered cell phone usage while behind the wheel a dangerous distraction; after showing reading, and looking at maps or directions to be among the top risks, the survey goes on to explain:

Somewhat lower proportions of the public regard cell phone use as potentially distracting. About half (48%) of the respondents think that making an out-going cell phone call causes driving to be more dangerous and 44% feel that answering incoming calls makes driving more dangerous. Other activities considered dangerous by a large proportion of the public include answering or checking a pager or beeper (43%) and dealing with children in the back seat (40%).

-National Survey of Distracted and Drowsy Driving by National Highway Traffic Administration

It is worth noting that “PDA’s and wireless email devices,” which are now just our cell phones, were their own category in this survey (though nearly 4 in ten people still did not consider them a driving distraction).

Despite our more evolved view on cell phone usage while driving, problems persist. According to an article by the Huffington Post just last year, the numbers reported for distracted driving deaths in which cell phones are a factor is also vastly under-reported.

In 2011, the most recent year in which data is available, 3,331 people were killed in automobile accidents involving a distracted driver, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association — more than the 3,267 such deaths reported the year before. About half of 2011’s fatal crashes from a distracted driver didn’t specify the source of distraction, but when distractions were identified, cell phones were often a leading cause, contributing to 350 fatalities, or 12 percent of all fatal crashes from driver distraction. And most experts say these statistics are vastly underreported, meaning that thousands more lives a year are almost certainly being claimed by an epidemic whose causes are already well understood.

-States Combat Cell Phone Use On The Road But Deaths Persist by Kevin Short

Check out this Forklift Safety Poster

From this we can extrapolate that public campaigns against cell phone use while driving aren’t entirely hitting their mark yet. One of the most interesting revelations about cell phone use while driving is that, according to a more recent (2010) CDC study, while the largest demographic of frequent cell phone users is young adults – those that are constantly engaged and use their phones for much more than just texting and calling – the highest rates of work related roadway fatalities are concentrated among those ages 45-64. The 24 to 34 year old bracket then comes in third with about 200 fatalities a year, only trailed by 65+ and those under 20 (who are highly unlikely to be driving commercially). So while cell phones are certainly a factor in driving deaths, there are definitely other issues in play, affecting the entire scope of employee driver demographics. Let’s take a look at those now.


Drowsiness & Nodding Off at the Wheel

Another one of the leading causes of problems behind the wheel is tiredness. The reason this factor comes into play so often is that there are a number of different causes that can lead to it, exposing a large number of people to the same problem. From lack of sleep, to long hours, to stress at home, to stress at work, to illness, the list goes on and on, and all of these things can take a toll on the focus and energy of drivers in the workplace. When we get to solutions, later on, also note that a different approach must be taken when correcting body and mental well-being issues like this, than would be taken for conscious decisions and habits, like checking cell phones or engaging in distracting activities while driving.

In the same CDC study, over one third of the sampled driving population said that they had nodded off at the wheel in the past, with about eight percent saying it had happened in the last six months. The most common time for incidents was between midnight and 6am (28%), which accounted for many long-haul drivers, but was closely followed by noon to 5pm, at 26%, and then 5pm to 9pm, at 17%.

Other Distraction Factors

  • Eating and Drinking: This is another huge risk factor for work vehicle drivers, who may eat their lunches on the go in order to save time or get in snacks between stops or deliveries. This can not only distract the eyes, as with other activities, but also occupies the hands, jeopardizing vehicle control and physical reaction times as well as attention. It is worth noting that this risk is not limited to long distance truck or freight drivers, as delivery and other short distance drivers are prone to it as well.
  • Adjusting the stereo and other electronics: Most of us enjoy listening to music while driving, but constant adjustments and fiddling can cause the same distraction issues as cell phone use.
  • Roadside distractions: A person or group of people, a crash, a dead animal, all of these can momentarily divert attention from a driver. In most instances, these small cases of rubbernecking have no consequences, but even a split second can be enough for an accident occur, and no one on the clock should be taking any chances.

Potential Solutions

While the purpose of this article is largely to map out the common risk factors associated with driving, let’s take a look at some solution options for managers and business owners as well.

  • Sometimes company-created policies can actually put workers at risk. One example is policies that require workers to be able to answer their phones for calls while out on delivery. This can be extremely distracting to drivers and their own coworkers can put them or others on the road in harm’s way when the driver has to reach for his or her handset. As it is probably a fairly essential function that you can reach your drivers, consider installing hands-free devices in your cars and trucks.
  • Require seat belts be worn at all times in all seats of a vehicle.
  • Make you you are not asking the same employees to work overtime continuously so that they aren’t overly tired from consistently long hours.
  • Develop training to inform employees of the common risk factors you’ve learned about in this article.

Most driving safety comes down to common-sense solutions and instilling good habits, feel free to share what you’ve done to keep your drivers safe below!

Additional Resources