Fleets are at Risk
According to 2014 statistics produced by Automotive-Fleet.com and Volvo, 1 in 5 fleet vehicles are involved in accidents annually (e.g., up to 200 vehicles in a 1,000-vehicle fleet). Moreover, validated data published by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) indicated the average cost for a large truck crash involving a fatality in 2005 was $3.6 million per crash. That was 11 years ago! Without question, fleet liability for accidents is staggering.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s 2016 “Most Wanted List” represents the NTSB’s advocacy priorities. “Disconnect from Deadly Distractions” is one of those priorities. In their “Most Wanted List” the NTSB calls for promoting the availability of collision avoidance technology in highway vehicles.
From the NTSB’s 2016 “Most Wanted List”
Quite simply, drivers, pilots, and other vehicle operators do not always have their minds on the road, waterway, sky, or track. But focusing on any other task other than what’s up ahead impairs performance and can lead to deadly consequences.
It is not only portable electronic devices (PEDs) that can distract us during vehicle operations, although PEDs have magnified the dangers of distraction in recent years.
Since 2003, the NTSB has found PED distraction as a cause or contributing factor in 11 accidents that killed 50 people and injured 259. And the NTSB does not even investigate the majority of highway crashes.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 3,179 people died in 2014 in vehicle accidents where the driver was distracted. Many of those victims were the drivers themselves. NHTSA reports that drivers engaging in visual-manual tasks, such as dialing or texting, triple their risk of a crash.
In 2013, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported that more than two out of three drivers indicated that they talked on a cell phone while driving within the past 30 days. More than one of three drivers admitted to reading a text message or e-mail while driving, and more than one of four drivers admitted to typing or sending a text or e-mail.
A 2015 report from State Farm revealed a new staggering trend: nearly 30 percent of drivers surveyed admitted to accessing the Internet while driving. That compares to just 13 percent who admitted to surfing the Web while driving in 2009.
In more heavily regulated transportation industries like aviation, marine and rail, communicating with crew and dispatchers, checking instruments and equipment, and handling scheduled procedures may be part of their work duties. But, like in private motor vehicles, engaging in tasks that don’t support the driving or operating task can have deadly consequences.
According to George Jameson of Genesis Systems, a safety and technology company, the steep rise in accident-related statistics are due largely to smartphone use by drivers. Jameson said, “Increasing use of smartphones and other in-vehicle distractions are taking drivers’ eyes off the road. Text messaging is, perhaps, the most dangerous distraction for drivers because it causes Cognitive Tunneling. In layman’s terms, it is commonly referred to as, ‘Tunnel Vision.’ Text messaging draws the eyes and attention of drivers away from operating motor vehicles. Nobody in their right mind would read the newspaper and write an editorial at the same time; but that is, in effect, what’s going when drivers are texting.”
Jameson’s assertions are consistent with the NTSB’s 2016 statement that, “focusing on any other task other than what’s up ahead impairs performance and can lead to deadly consequences.”
According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Department of Transportation and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, human error (primarily “driver inattention”) is responsible for 93% of all crashes. Cell phones and other in-vehicle distractions present many opportunities for driver inattention. NHTSA also reports that such inattention, within three seconds of an incident, is a factor in 74% of all crashes. The distractions are so strong that brakes aren’t even applied in 40% of all rear-end collisions.
Text messaging, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, is unquestionably the most dangerous driver distraction because doing so requires visual, physical and cognitive attention. The Department of Transportation’s list of additional dangerous driver distractions include:
- Talking on the phone
- Using a smartphone in other ways
- Eating and drinking
- Reviewing maps
- Using navigation systems
- Watching videos
- Adjusting music controls
- Speaking with passengers
The NTSB Recommends Technology
How do we protect ourselves on the roadway? Twenty years ago, the NTSB issued its first recommendation on the use of technology to prevent rear-end collisions. The agency suggested the implementation of technology in motor vehicles could significantly reduce crashes.
“Perhaps the most obvious challenge is technology,” said T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, the Vice Chairman of the NTSB during a speech in January 2016. “Distraction remains on NTSB’s Most Wanted List, but technology is also increasingly able to protect us through crash avoidance systems and, as we have seen in the news this week, vehicles that are more and more automated culminating, one day, in a self-driving car. So technology is part of the challenge and part of the solution — as with everything, it is whether we have the wisdom to use the technology to advance safety rather than abusing it.”
Collision Avoidance Systems
MobilEye, a leading company in the effort improve roadway safety produced a list called “4 Ways to Improve Driver Safety Without Buying New Vehicles.” The very first item on that list was “Add a Collision Avoidance System.” In September 2016 MobilEye and WABCO issued a press release announcing a joint venture that would introduce an “Advanced Driver Assistance System Functionalities and Road Experience Management™ (REM™) Technology for Commercial Vehicles.”
This author refers to systems developed by MobilEye and others that use radar and automatic braking technologies as “Active” systems designed to actively “observe” the roadway and react to changing conditions in an effort to avoid collisions. While I believe such technologies have value and are important, I do believe they fall short in a few areas.
- They are very expensive add-ons.
- They cannot control the actions of other drivers and other vehicles.
- They may provide a false sense of security to drivers and, thereby, create an atmosphere that leads to even more inattention.
Their shortcomings notwithstanding, my advocacy for the installation of Active systems remains intact. While imperfect, they are great technologies and should be considered by fleet management for installation on their vehicles.
I refer to some vehicle collision countermeasures as “Passive” because those technologies do not actively alert drivers operating vehicles installed with such systems. The alert is not for them, but for drivers of other vehicles who may be distracted.
For example, Genesis Safety Systems has deployed a very cost-effective product referred to as “Sure Stop Technology™” designed to alert other drivers to a potentially dangerous situation unfolding in their path of travel. Patented in 2016, it is the only digital product commercially available for modulating the third brake light that concurrently complies with (1) Federal Law and (2) provides continuous post-stop protection via proprietary Sure Stop Technology® modulation. This countermeasure serves to break cognitive tunneling by leveraging the physical structure of the human eye, and alerting following drivers to traffic changes in front of them.
Peripheral vision in the human eye is weak and not well suited for distinguishing color, shape, or detail. Conversely, peripheral vision is especially effective in noticing flicker and detecting motion. Peripheral vision is a product of the rod-like structures (rods) in the human eye. Rods are, in effect, the eye’s motion detectors and they are densely packed throughout the periphery of the human eye. If nothing is happening in the traffic ahead, there are few visual stimuli to alert the driver to the stalled traffic. If the oncoming driver is engaged in text messaging and focused (tunnel vision) on his or her mobile device, “movement” on the periphery of their vision may alert them to the danger and result in accident avoidance; thereby obviating injuries, deaths, and property damage.
While some might argue that bright brake lights effectively garner the attention of someone who is texting, they are dead wrong. Humans are attracted by changes in light, movement of light, disappearance and appearance of light – but not light itself. If light were that effective at garnering attention, our eyes would be drawn to the sun each time we venture outdoors.
All manner of animal life rely heavily on their internal motion detectors. House flies, for example, have two eyes; each with 3,000 to 6,000 lenses. Movement is readily observed by the fly when a single lens detects changes in brightness or contrast. Even small movements are instantaneously seen, and reacted to, by flies; and that’s why they’re so successful in safely treating themselves to your meal. This is called “Change Detection.” Humans, like most predators and prey, are designed to respond to change detection. When we detect a change, we are generally quick to respond.
Change detection (aka motion detection) is important to “Conspicuity” while driving. Although brake lights are conspicuous, if they are not changing they lose their ability to capture our attention. Ever wonder why emergency vehicles have flashing lights? They are placed on the vehicle and flash to make the vehicle very conspicuous and the changes in motion (flashing) enhance that conspicuity. The enhancement provides an attention-getting property designed to easily attract the focus of people within view of the emergency vehicle.
Numerous studies support the thesis that drivers engaged in text messaging will focus on their mobile device and fail to notice they are approaching stopped traffic. However, a combination of peripheral vision, change detection, conspicuity, (PCDC) and pulse width modulation enhanced brake light systems at the rear of passenger cars, can and does, alert following drivers to the oncoming danger and can draw their focus away from smartphones and other distractions. The resulting mental realignment is toward the task of slowing their vehicle.
Passive or Active?
I believe the correct answer is both. Why? The following is an example of a dangerous situation that occurs daily on U.S. highways and suggests both technological approaches have value.
You are the operator of a tractor-trailer on an interstate highway reviewing a text from your teenage daughter. While reading the text message, “active” collision countermeasures installed on your tractor alert you to traffic stopping ahead. Before the vehicle can begin slowing itself, you’ve been alerted and perform that task yourself. If you fail to slow the vehicle yourself, onboard technology will handle it for you. Great!
But what about the person behind you, barreling down the freeway at 85 mph texting and closing at a rate of 2.4 seconds per 100 yards? Just so you know, in the time takes most people to read the previous sentence, that person behind you covered a distance exceeding the length of 3 football fields. The trailing driver is focused on his or her smartphone. Hopefully, they will notice that you applied your brakes and have slowed or stopped your rig. After all, most vehicles traveling U.S. roadways do not have the benefit of installed active collision countermeasures.
If they didn’t, BOOM. There’s a 91% chance those in the trailing vehicle just died, your load may be compromised, your tractor is out of service while the accident is assessed and cleaned up, and you may be facing litigation costs; regardless of the fact that you weren’t at fault.
If your trailer is equipped with “Sure Stop Technology™” the trailing driver’s eyes have a much better opportunity to detect the pre-programmed pattern of the pulsing brake lights at the rear of your vehicle and may very well react in time to avoid colliding with your trailer. NHTSA reports that a single additional second of reaction time for following drivers will result in the avoidance of 90% of all rear-end collisions.
Is your Fleet at Risk?
Seriously consider installation of technologies that can mitigate the risk of your fleet vehicles becoming involved in roadway accidents. The cost of avoidable accidents underscores the need for every fleet operator to proactively address accident mitigation through the installation of collision countermeasure technologies.
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