With roughly 15% of all road fatalities attributed to distracted driving, the DOT is getting tough on curbing driver distractions. What does this mean for fleet owners, will there be new compliance requirements, and what does this mean for your insurance telematics program?

The DOT are proposing strict new guidelines for vehicles under 10,000 pounds to minimize driver distraction, and it will have far-reaching repercussions for commercial fleets across the country.

The ‘distracted driver’ problem is not going away

As part of an ongoing push for less driver distractions, NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) Administrator David Strickland made some revealing comments about the future of in-car device legislation.

He states that “…we recognize that vehicle manufacturers want to build vehicles that include the tools and conveniences expected by today’s American drivers. The guidelines we’re proposing would offer real-world guidance to automakers to help them develop electronic devices that provide features consumers want, without disrupting a driver’s attention or sacrificing safety.”

His comments are supported by DOT Secretary Ray LaHood, who has been fronting a long-running campaign against distracted drivers, and with April 2012 being distracted driving awareness month, the pressure will continue to be on both drivers and vehicle manufacturers to combat the problem.

Strickland underscored the danger of distracted driving with some sobering statistics that add weight to the importance of addressing this issue.

“Roughly 33,000 people die each year in cars; driver distraction is cited for roughly 5,500 of those deaths.”

Obviously the dangers of distracted driving are real but what challenges do drivers face in maintaining focus on the task at hand, and how will this affect fleet safety levels?

New devices — A distraction danger to drivers?

Standing in the opposite corner of the ring is the growing number of devices that are available to mobile workers and, of particular concern, drivers.

Drivers are juggling smartphones, GPS devices, pagers, and tablets, causing them to lose focus, dangerously increasing their chance of being involved in an accident.

Many devices are almost designed for distraction — difficult user interfaces that aren’t designed to be operated while driving, yet at the same time they demand instant attention — they buzz, ring, and generally make a fuss when they want the user’s attention. Both of these factors increase the in-car distraction factor.

Law changes recommended to tackle distraction

While fleet management systems demonstrate that technology can be utilized to improve fleet safety, there is a growing need for manufacturers, of both vehicles and devices, to give consideration to the distraction factor. And it appears the U.S. government will soon be taking a very active part in forcing their hand if the new proposed distraction guidelines are anything to go by.

Recommendations for changes to in-vehicle hardware include:

  • Reduce complexity and task length required by the device
  • Limit device operation to one hand only (leaving the other hand to remain on the steering wheel to control the vehicle)
  • Limit individual off-road glances required for device operation to no more than two seconds in duration
  • Limit unnecessary visual information in the driver’s field of view
  • Limit the amount of manual inputs required for device operation

The changes will have widespread ramifications, impacting on a huge range of electronic devices from tablets to smartphones, GPS devices to in-car PNDs and wireless hubs. NHTSA has plans to extend the scope of the suggested legislation to deal with aftermarket and handheld devices that could pose a distraction risk to drivers.

The plan is to make sure tasks, such as the following, are not possible while the vehicle is in motion:

  • Visual-manual text messaging
  • Visual-manual internet browsing
  • Visual-manual social media browsing
  • Visual-manual navigation system destination entry by address
  • Visual-manual 10-digit phone dialing
  • Displaying to the driver more than 30 characters of text unrelated to the driving task

Whatever the future holds for in-car devices we are likely to see an increase in regulations around how devices are used by mobile workers to minimize distraction and improve fleet safety. Telogis supports safer in-car devices and is focused on designing and developing user interfaces that work within the guidelines, while not limiting the ability of mobile workers to enjoy increased productivity and efficiency.

The key is to not limit the growth of technology but rather to adapt it to the needs of a changing mobile workforce, where ‘gadgets on the go’ is fast becoming the rule rather than the exception.