While commercial vehicle technology offers numerous benefits in terms of safety, it only takes one small device to cancel out all the other benefits — a cell phone. Even with the increased emphasis on driver distraction and their dangerous side effects, on-road crashes and resulting fatalities are still on the rise. As a result, fleets are finding it more and more difficult to insure their vehicles, while also trying to avoid the fallout caused by nuclear verdicts.
On-road fatality estimates recently released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows a 16-year high, with 42,915 people dying in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2021, a 10.5% increase from the previous year. For Class 3-8 trucks, NHTSA reported 5,601 fatalities, an increase of 13% from 2021. On top of that, 2020 statistics show that more than 3,000 people died as a result of a crash involving at least one driver who was distracted.
Driver Distraction: Cause and Effects
Fleets are losing the battle to improve safety and cut accident losses despite significant commitment and investment in safety related solutions. Of all the factors impacting fleet safety, driver distraction can be the cause of some of the most costly accidents, especially distraction caused by cell phone misuse. Even with an increased focus on improving on-road safety and driver behavior, fleets are finding it difficult to eliminate cell phone usage behind the wheel.
This issue is getting worse due to the increased addiction to cell phone use, whether from workforce apps, social media apps, streaming services, or even just phone calls. There are commercially reasonable measures that can be taken to effectively mitigate the risk of phone distraction, but simply identifying and warning the driver about cell phone distraction will not stop it. While NHTSA and other transportation agencies have taken it upon themselves to eliminate these risky behaviors, the issue has not seen the same efforts related to campaigning against drunk or drug-impaired driving accidents. Fleets need to set it upon themselves to create an "anti-distracted" culture within its driver pool, effectively eliminating the problem from within.
People love their cell phones, to the point where it can become an addiction. Cell phone usage can increase the release of endorphins and dopamine as a result of phone interactions, from getting a gratifying text from a loved one to getting a high score on a newly downloaded game. Cell phones are brilliantly designed and continue to evolve to provide the user with gratification, a sense of belonging, and a feeling of achievement and connectedness. However, they can also effectively remove drivers’ free will to make the smart choice by leaving the phone down while driving, especially while on the job.
Driver Distraction: Impact on the Fleet Industry
Before cell phones, crash and fatality data was improving, showing an overall decline. With the introduction of the smartphone in the early 2000s, and its gained popularity in the years that have followed, people no longer imagine getting along without them. For fleets, this has necessitated the development of new policies and procedures concerning cell phone use for employees, especially when behind the wheel.
The start of the “smartphone era” has also affected commercial auto insurers. Since the release, broad proliferation, and ongoing addiction to cell phones, the roads have become more dangerous. Drivers are simply spending too much time interacting with their phones, focusing more on their phone than the act of driving. The end result of this is a clear correlation between cell phone use and accidents. The result, which can add up to numerous accidents for a fleet, is more expensive — and sometimes canceled — insurance policies. The insurers are no longer ready to provide coverage to fleets if they are not proactive about mitigating the risks of driver distraction.
Commercial auto insurers struggle to achieve profitability, resulting in less available insurance options and higher prices for insurance. Ultimately, fleets might potentially lose business because they cannot get coverage for their vehicles. Smaller fleets, which pay relatively higher prices for insurance per vehicle, see an even greater impact on profit, adversely affecting the ability to stay in business.
Small Verdicts vs. Nuclear Verdicts
There are no winners in an accident, whether there is solely property damage, an injury, or, in some unfortunate cases, a fatality. While insurance companies hash out which party is at fault for minor fender benders, lawyers commonly step in when an accident results in injury or a death. These cases can cripple a fleet, whether they are small settlements or nuclear verdicts.
According to a 2021 report by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), the frequency and size of small verdicts is increasing. In some cases, fleets are paying more out of pocket before even entering a courtroom, with settlements approximately 38% higher than verdicts. In cases that involve fatalities and severe injuries, 966% and 199% are more likely to result in judgments of more than $600,000, respectively.
An year earlier, ATRI released a report on nuclear verdicts after reviewing cases from a litigation database. While there were only four award cases that were more than $1 million in 2006, between 2010 and 2018, that number jumped to 299. The cost of these verdicts has also increased. In 2011, a dual-fatality case resulted in a $40 million judgment against a truck driver that failed to yield for a stop sign. A year later, another fatality case led to an award of $281 million.
Managing Driver Distraction
Driver distraction is the key behavior to focus on. Logically, anything that diverts attention away from the driver can result in an accident. With cell phone distraction leading to more and more nuclear verdicts, and the availability of viable, proven technology to address the issue, the challenge of managing cell phone distraction is becoming a necessity for fleets.
To implement a simple cell phone management solution, these three factors should be taken into consideration:
What is the Cost?
With available solutions and the cost and potential liability of at-fault accidents, investments in cell phone management technology typically show a very strong return on investment, especially with solutions that require no added hardware. Fleets should consider options that avoid the installation of additional hardware in the vehicle, which add increased costs and higher complexity, as well as long-term support requirements.
Is Cell Phone Use Actively Blocked?
Allowing the misuse of phones to continue and merely reporting it to fleet managers and warning the drivers is far less advantageous than using a solution that blocks the misuse of phones while driving. As mentioned above, cell phone distraction is uniquely addictive and cannot be just merely warned away.
Does the Driver Self-Correct in Real Time?
The burden on corporate fleet and safety managers to coach drivers to improve is greatly lessened if the solution provides real-time prevention to the driver when non-compliant phone use is attempted. Fleet managers are looking for solutions that fully stop non-compliant cell phone usage vs. technologies that warn their employees which still puts the burden on the fleet managers to review video footage and reports, and to coach those employees who do not heed the warnings.
While driver distraction, especially from cell phone use, is a major cause of accidents, there are commercially available solutions to mitigate that risk. They are proven, inexpensive, and deployed across thousands of vehicles. Not all solutions are the same, however, and fleets should understand that no additional hardware is required, and an ideal solution will stop the use of cell phones in unsafe situations, not just report the infraction after the fact. The right solution can reduce costs, improve operations, and save lives.