James Solomon is the program development and training director for the National Safety Council’s (NSC) defensive driving courses. In this interview, Solomon explains the risks of distracted driving and discusses the measures companies are taking to curb cell phone use and texting among their fleets and commercial drivers.
Please provide a brief description of your professional background and of your position as program development and training director for NSC’s defensive driving courses.
I have worked for NSC since 1985. In my current position, I am responsible for course accuracy and training and for the quality of defensive driving instruction. I have conducted training courses for drivers of cars, trucks, tractor-trailers and buses as well as for senior citizen drivers. I have also taught courses on driver attitude modification.
Cell phone use and texting while driving increase motor vehicle crash risk by four times. Teens and novice drivers are most likely to be involved in crashes that result from driver distraction. Why are these groups engaging in such risky behavior, and what is being done to educate these drivers about the risks of distracted driving?
Teens and novice drivers lack driving experience and knowledge as well as years behind the wheel operating in all traffic, road and weather conditions. This leaves them with a handicap. They cannot make judgments or look ahead to what might be a bad or tense situation. The area of the brain that controls our ability to multitask is not fully developed until our early 20s. Therefore, when teens multitask, such as doing homework while watching television, their brains cannot handle it. Also, many of those between the ages of 16 and 24 have no fear. They tend to believe only old people die, not young people. Anyone over the age of 30 is “old” to them.
NSC has noticed that for young people, cell phones have grown into an addiction and constant relationship. Informal polls show that many sleep with their cell phone under their pillow or next to their bed in case they receive a text message. If they receive a call or text message while driving, their brain immediately focuses on answering the phone—that is all they can think about.
NSC and other organizations are trying to reach out to teens and novice drivers through defensive driving courses, but how much farther do we go? Teens and novice drivers do not see their actions as risky behavior.
What is the rate of cell phone use and texting among fleets and commercial vehicle drivers? What measures are employers taking to enforce wireless device policies?
First, you must determine if the cell phones are owned or paid for by employers or employees. While many employers have rules against using cell phones, this does not stop employees from using them. A recent poll indicates that 270 million people have a cell phone subscription, and 80% have admitted to talking on the phone while driving. This problem is seeping into other areas. Workers in skilled positions in dangerous jobs have admitted to using a Bluetooth device while working at a jobsite.
Companies are working hard to reverse this trend. OSHA requires employers to provide employees with safety equipment or training for any known hazards. If employers give their employees an electronic communication device or require employees to have one, they assume responsibility for any dangerous situations employees may face while using the device. Many companies are examining when and how cell phones should be used. NSC does not allow its employees to use an electronic communication device when operating a company or personal vehicle during work hours or on personal time.
How do cell phone and texting laws for drivers vary by state? Will any federal legislation soon be enacted to govern wireless device use while driving?
First, even without laws or regulations, the licensed operator of a motor vehicle is required to be in full control of that vehicle at all times. If the driver uses an electronic communication device and is involved in a crash, the crash will most likely be ruled as preventable and recordable because the driver did not have full control over the vehicle.
Seven states allow the use of hands-free cell phones only, but research shows that hands-free cell phones are not any safer than handheld cell phones. Seventeen states do not allow school bus drivers to use cell phones while driving. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia do not allow anyone with a graduated driver’s license to use a cell phone while driving. Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia have rules against texting while driving. President Obama just signed an executive order barring government employees from texting while driving.
What are other examples of driving distractions? Do these tend to change as technology advances? As wireless devices become smaller and more sophisticated, do you foresee the emergence of a new crop of driving distractions?
Other driving distractions include:
These distractions change as technology advances. For example, many people adjust their vehicle’s global positioning device while driving. Many vans come equipped with DVD players, and while these should not be placed in the driver’s line of sight, many parents admit to watching their children’s DVDs while driving. Trends are changing, and new distractions will continue to emerge.
How does distracted driving impair cognition and concentration?
The simple answer is sensory overload. Before we had these devices, we knew that fast drivers did not see everything around them. When you drive, you see thousands of images that the brain must process. The faster you drive, the more images your brain must process. Soon your brain becomes too busy identifying what is ahead of it and only responds to images in front of the eye, which leads to tunnel vision and reduced peripheral vision. This is why NASCAR drivers have 4 to 6 people or more positioned around the race track who use headsets to warn drivers of what is coming.
Cell phone use or texting causes inattention blindness. When you talk on a phone, your brain develops mental images to identify what is being said or read. The brain expends so much of its capacity in making and analyzing the picture that it cannot respond to changing street lights, brake lights ahead or a child coming out into the street. This is inattention blindness.
You are a member of the Z15 Accredited Standards Committee, Safety Requirements for Motor Vehicle Operations. How will the committee revise the standard, “Safe Practices for Motor Vehicle Operations” (ANSI/ASSE Z15.1-2006), to include requirements for preventing distracted driving?
The committee is analyzing and developing suggestions for employers to use when developing company policies and practices to be followed for all electronic communication device use.
What research studies on distracted driving are currently in progress?
A list of current research studies is available on NSC’s website at http://www.nsc.org/resources/issues/dd_key_research.aspx#key_research_studies.
You have more than 40 years of experience in defensive driving education. What are the greatest changes you have seen in driver behavior over the years? How have you addressed these changes in the classroom?
In the beginning, people who enrolled in defensive driving courses wanted to learn how to have better control over their vehicle, how to work with other motorists and how to drive safely. We began to receive questions from employers who saw a need to better train their workforce. Now corporations, government and military agencies, schools and other groups also want to be trained so they can in turn train their employees and conduct reviews as necessary. Insurers for personal vehicles or fleets often give a discount to those who take a defensive driving course periodically. In commercial cases, if all drivers are not trained, insurance will be canceled.
In the last 15 years, we have needed to apply the attitudinal psychology of driving in the classroom. We now ask students to consider why they do what they do and what will it take to make them change to drive more safely. We ask offenders if they drive the same way they drive with their family in the car as they did when they received a ticket. Most say no, they would not want to kill their family.
What advice do you have for employers who want to restrict cell phone use among their fleets and commercial drivers but are having trouble enforcing wireless device policies and monitoring employee cell phone usage?
First, you must have a clearly written company policy on the use of electronic communication devices. For that to really work, the first people to sign off and accept the policy is the board of directors and the organization’s operating officers. It should then move down to directors, managers and all other employees.
The Z15 committee suggests the revised Z15.1 standard include sample forms that employers can use to develop their own policies on electronic communication device use.
Employers may also view and download cell phone policy tools on NSC’s website at http://www.nsc.org/resources/issues/dd_employer_policies.aspx.
He serves on the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the ANSI Z15 Accredited Standards Committee for Motor Vehicle Operations and NSC’s Defensive Driving Courses International Advisory Committee.
He holds a bachelor of arts degree from Murray State University.