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Hands-Free or Total Ban? Small Fleets Address Distracted Driving

September 2017, by Amy Winter-Hercher - Also by this author

In texting shorthand, SMH means “shaking my head” or even “stupid-minded humans.” In a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)campaign against distracted driving, “SMH” was the last text sent by a teen driver who died in a car accident caused by her texting and driving. Photo via
In texting shorthand, SMH means “shaking my head” or even “stupid-minded humans.” In a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)campaign against distracted driving, “SMH” was the last text sent by a teen driver who died in a car accident caused by her texting and driving. Photo via

The No. 1 thing that keeps Jeb Lopez up at night is how to get his fleet drivers to stay off their phones while driving.

“If my fleet drivers get a call while driving, they’re not allowed to answer their phone while the vehicle is in motion,” says Lopez, CEO of Wheelz Up, a vehicle parts delivery service. “We have a strict policy on distracted driving. If a driver really needs to answer the phone, pull over to the side of the road, stop the van, and put it in park.”

Distracted driving has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2015, 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted driving, an increase of 8.8% from the previous year.

According to the National Safety Council, more than one in every four car crashes in the U.S. is caused by texting and driving.  

Distracted driving isn’t limited to talking or texting on cellphones, but they are the main culprits. Distracted driving includes any activity that diverts attention from driving, including eating and drinking, talking to others in the car, and operating the stereo, entertainment, or navigation system.  

This October, fleet operators can access resources from the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS). The focus of this year’s annual Drive Safely Work Week campaign will be distracted driving to create more awareness among businesses.

As more reports continue to identify the dangers of distracted driving and phone use, fleets need to stay updated on their policies to protect drivers. Some fleets have zero tolerance for driving and texting/talking on the phone, while other fleets say drivers can answer calls with hands-free devices such as an earpiece or Bluetooth system. Here are some examples of how fleets are addressing the ongoing issue.


A ban of all hand-held cellphone use while driving is in effect in only 14 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, while 47 states ban texting and driving. Despite what types of laws and policies are enforced, it comes down to the fleet and how it will choose to operate phones — calls and texts — while driving.

At Payne Pest Management in Southern California, an employee caught holding a cellular device while behind the wheel faces a company reprimand.

Because employees use cellular devices for time cards, customer contracts, maps, and to contact customers and co-workers, the company is transitioning its fleet to new vehicles with Bluetooth, hands-free communication tools to allow drivers to take a phone call if necessary while driving, according to Phil McFadden, Payne Pest Management’s director of human resources.

“We instruct our drivers to pull off the road to a safe and legal place to return a missed phone call or to check texts or email messages,” says McFadden. “The hands-free Bluetooth allows them to pick up a quick phone call while driving.”

Northland Mechanical Contractors allows its drivers to use hands-free technology but only to pick up incoming calls. To date, Northland’s fleet hasn’t experienced any cellphone-use related issues.

“They can answer incoming calls using a single-button answer and hang-up function,” says Kevin Weil, operations safety manager at Northland Mechanical Contractors. “Drivers aren’t allowed to send texts or make outgoing calls while driving, even with hands-free technology.&rdquo

For Hometown Home Health & Hospice, it’s a challenge for clinical team members to maintain their workloads while driving from one appointment to the next. Employees often receive urgent calls that a nurse needs to be alerted to see a patient immediately, according to James Reynolds, Hometown’s chief financial officer.

To help clinicians practice safe driving standards, Hometown provides hands-free Sync technology in its Ford vehicles.

“Additionally, we tell our staff that any meaningful communication deserves our full attention,” says Reynolds. “While in transit, we encourage them to pull over and stop driving to respect the conversation and the safety of other drivers.”

GPS technology presents another potential distraction. Team 360, a building services and fire protection company, requires its fleet drivers to pull over when needing to program a GPS device. “We had an incident of an employee programming a GPS unit while driving; he rear-ended someone at a stop sign,” says Michael Crafton, president and CEO.

Zero Tolerance

Some fleets have a stricter policy on distracted driving. Wheelz Up is an example of a fleet that practices zero tolerance for texting and talking on cellphones while driving.

“We used to have a three-strike rule, but now if a driver is caught texting and driving, he or she is subject to termination,” says Lopez. “It only takes one accident and one death to finish a company. It’s not worth the risk.”

After nine months of practicing its zero tolerance policy, Lopez said that he has already fired a few drivers for using their phones while driving.

To help enforce this policy, Lopez installed DriveCam by Lytx in each of his 160 fleet vans. The camera will take a 12-second recording when triggered by an incident. An incident can be defined as a vehicle getting hit, a driver smoking in the cabin, or a driver having droopy eyes.

“The camera will pick up drowsiness or when the head is dropping,” says Lopez. “If a driver is eating or texting, the camera will see the driver’s head going up and down. We have had driving incidents where the driver was caught on camera texting. The cameras have helped us create a culture that we are serious and not playing around in regards to our zero tolerance policy.”

In addition to cameras, another tool to discourage phone use involves locking the phone. Surete, an app and device combo, locks the smartphone and blocks all applications once the vehicle has started.

“By installing the device under the vehicle’s hood and connecting to the starter fuse, the vehicle won’t start if someone tries to remove the app from the phone,” says Mitch Fonseca, co-founder of Surete. “To turn on the car, you have to synch the app with the car. Once it’s synched, the phone is locked.”

Once the phone is locked, users can only call 9-1-1 and use features that are preapproved by an administrator, including preset away messages.

What Experts Say

Despite what state legislation permits, Phil Moser, vice president of Advanced Driver Training Services, advises fleets to practice a no cellphone policy while behind the wheel.

Moser stated that a driver who uses a cellphone while driving is just as likely to crash as someone who has a blood alcohol concentration of .08%, even when using a hands-free device. Additionally, if a driver is texting, tweeting, or emailing on a phone while driving, he or she is 23 times more likely to crash.

When a driver is talking on the phone — or just listening — the activity in the brain that processes moving images decreases by up to one-third, according to the National Safety Council. When talking on the phone, drivers looking out the windshield can miss seeing up to 50% of what’s around them.

“The hands-free policies by state are a flawed law,” says Moser. “It’s not safe to drive while talking on the phone. A hands-free device doesn’t matter; it’s the conversation that is the distraction, not holding the phone.”

It takes more cognitive ability to talk on the phone than it does to talk to a passenger, according to Moser. If something happens while driving, the passenger will stop talking and stop distracting the driver.

In Dave Muma’s Century Driving Group driving school in Michigan, clients are assessed for internal and external distractions and an ability to multitask in low- and high-complexity environments. Conversations are a distraction that can burden the driver cognitively and add more risk, according to Muma.

“Drivers should be scanning intersections and be aware of other drivers instead of looking at their phone,” says Muma. “This type of awareness about road conditions gets missed when someone is distracted by their phone.”

To Moser, it doesn’t decrease fleet productivity to ban talking on the phone while driving. When multi-tasking, a fleet driver isn’t doing either task well.

“It actually increases productivity when drivers better manage their time and build time in their schedules to make phone calls outside of driving,” he says.

Distraction: Eating While Driving

By Andy Lundin

One less identified distraction is eating or drinking while driving. Compared to driving without distraction, driving while eating or drinking increases a driver’s crash risk by about 70%, according to Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Drivers between the ages of 40 and 50 were observed to be eating or drinking more than other age groups that were monitored in an IIHS study in which drivers were video recorded while driving. This was followed by young adults ages 20 to 30, then teenagers ages 16 to 17, and, lastly, older drivers ages 60 to 70.

IIHS also found that a larger portion of drivers were eating or drinking when they were alone rather than when they were driving with passengers, according to another study in which driver distractions were documented by roadside observers in Northern Virginia.

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  1. 1. Landon [ September 28, 2017 @ 10:06AM ]

    Very interesting! Recently a resource was developed that discusses multiple areas of teen distracted driving behaviors such as- which grade level is affected most, what apps cause distractions, and causes of dangers. You can find it here:

  2. 2. Ben J. Ditzel [ November 12, 2017 @ 07:07PM ]

    Why not put the very cheap headunits by Sony (Sony XAV-AX100) with Android Auto/ Car Play in them? Employee morale would increase since they could have custom music while driving for the company AND, in turn, it disables the phone from being used while driving.
    Plus the Sony headunits have great navigation interface for delivery drivers.


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