Driving Safety Podcast

Driving Safety

This episode of Workplace Matters looks at how employers can help keep their drivers safe. What causes driver distraction? What are the important aspects of a driver safety program? How does workplace culture affect driver safety?

We asked Dan McGehee from the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa and Karen Rehm from the Nebraska Safety Council about how employers can keep their drivers safe.

Michael: You’re listening to Workplace Matters. Whether it is a daily commute or entire fleet, almost all workplaces involve motor vehic­les. We talked with Karen Rehm from the Nebraska Safety Council and Dan McGehee from the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa about why and how employers can protect the health and safety of their employees when they are driving.


Dan: Crashes are preventable.

Michael: Dan McGehee is the Director of the National Advanced Driving Simulator. A national laboratory under the U.S. department of transportation and run by the University of Iowa. He is also, University of Iowa faculty in engineering, industrial systems engineering, emergency medicine, public health, and public policy.

Dan: You can’t use the word accidents for the rest of your life, accidents to the public don’t have causes. In the car context they are crashes and each crash has many different causes. And that’s what we study at the national advanced driving simulator. What we do is decompose all of the elements that go into a car crash. And what we reveal in our research is what distraction is and under what circumstances it takes place.

Karen: You can be distracted three different ways.

Michael: Karen Ream is the Road Safety Project Coordinator with the Nebraska Safety Council in Lincoln, Nebraska. Karen works directly with employers to better protect the health and safety of their drivers.

Karen: One is visually. So that is anything when you’re behind the wheel that takes your eyes off the road. That could be billboards. That could be your passing a crash. You can have the deer go in front of the vehicle, just things that take your field of sight off the road. Second one is manual, and that’s where you are engaged in activity that takes your hands off the wheel. So that’s changing the radio station, picking something up off the floorboard, anything that takes your hands off the wheel. And then the other is cognitive. You may be daydreaming. You might be thinking, OK, I have 14 things I need to get off the to do list today. And working through that, it could also be listening to an audio book in your car, listening to loud music, loud conversations, anything that takes that cognitive function away from focusing on the road. So those are three main types of distraction.

Michael: Each type of distraction creates a hazard on the road and each one can be interconnected. Picking something up off the floorboard might cause you to look away from the road for a second, turning a manual distraction into a visual one as well. This is why it is so important to stress that drivers must stay engaged with what they are doing.

Dan: Driving is inherently somewhat of a boring thing to do, so we look away from the forward roadway pretty frequently, our eyes are very curious. They look around and ill timed, look away from the road, especially in stop and go traffic. That ill-timed glance away from the road can result in a rear end collision.

Karen: If individuals are engaged in the driving activity, you will be aware of tractors in front of you or slower moving trucks during harvest time. It’s when you are distracted or road weary, where you’re not judging those distances well enough, that individuals are more prone to have a motor vehicle crash or overcorrect and end up in the ditch.

Michael: There are many factors that determine if a driver has a collision or not, and that driver’s workplace can significantly affect this. For instance, a workplace that allows employees to send emails or make calls while driving is taking that driver’s attention away from the task at hand. Work factors can lead to crashes, but they are preventable.

Dan: Especially with the smartphone and the touch screen smartphone, we’ve now entered into an era of ubiquitous communications. And that means that most people that are driving a car now have a cell phone and more specifically, a smartphone that is rarely used for talking, but more used for email, text messaging and other very attentionally demanding operations.

Dan: There are many instances of crashes that occur because you have to get up at 4:00 in the morning to get to your place of work at 6:00. Nurses and doctors, technicians, medical assistance will work very long shifts and then they have to drive home, sometimes long distances. And that’s where they can have a microsleep fall asleep and drift into the oncoming lane. So those kinds of things need to be considered very carefully.

Michael: Amany Farag from the University of Iowa college of nursing studied the effects of fatigue on shift workers in the nursing industry. In an earlier episode we asked her to describe what causes fatigue.

Amany: So, some industries like nursing, truck drivers, aviation, by the virtue of this profession you have to work overnight, 24/7, to provide the care for your customers. And this is where the issue starts because you are working against your natural mechanism. We are wired that at night you have to sleep. So, shift workers, they are working against their natural circadian rhythm. So, you are pushing your body to perform in a way that they are not hardwired to perform in.

Michael: Fatigue has a dramatic negative impact on motor vehicle safety. Therefore, shiftwork and scheduling need to be considered when revising driving policies. Crashes always have causes, and the best way to mitigate those causes is to have strong policies in place. By creating consequences for breaking safety procedures and incentivizing safe behaviors, companies can not only have a real impact on the bottom line in terms of liability and claims, but positively affect the health and safety of their drivers.

Dan: As a culture, what I see is companies who encourage people that are doing a lot of driving to multitask in the sense that they take care of business on point-to-point drives, and that they specifically call out that that is not allowed and have consequences for that kind of work. What’s important of that, not only is it safer, but it saves them money. I think just as a policy, know that there’s an expectation that there are consequences for using that. So, if you see, for instance, somebody driving out of your parking lot and they’re on the phone, they need to be called out on that.

Dan: The other policy that’s also critical is seatbelt use.

Karen: When you look in the state of Nebraska, as far as seatbelt usage, I mean it’s at 80 percent observed seatbelt usage, however, there’s 20 percent that choose not to use their seatbelt, and that accounts for three hundred and ninety thousand people. And the majority of motor vehicle crash fatalities are those individuals that are not using a seatbelt, either as the driver or the occupant.

Dan: Now, what is really important to consider is the safety belt use of the passengers, especially the rear seat passengers. We’re not very good at that. So, there are a lot of different issues that occur when somebody is unbelted, not only in the front seat, but especially in the back seat and frontal crashes or any crash, the passenger becomes a projectile. One-hundred-and-fifty-pound projectile at two-hundred-and-fifty-pound projectile inside that vehicle and one heads knock at the kind of velocities that occur, even in slow speed crashes, there is a great potential for a very severe, if not fatal injury. So, safety belt use for all passengers is critical.

Michael: Seatbelts, speeding, and cellphone use are all commonly understood policies when discussing driver safety, but often slip ups in driver safety can be looked over and seen as inconsequential.

Dan: You need to stitch together a broader safety culture within the organization to really maximize that effect and come up with some sort of enforcement mechanism. Not to say that you’re going to be fired or use heavy handed enforcement, but just say that good driving behaviors are reinforced and bad driving behaviors are not.

Michael: A strong driver safety program is a key part of this. We asked Dan and Karen what goes into a good program and examples that have been successful.

Dan: You take it seriously that you have seat belts, programs, substance abuse programs, I should say, seat belt education, substance abuse programs within companies, policies surrounding distraction and the use of phone in company vehicles. And then really talk about the consequences, not only from distraction and crashes, but to the bottom line of the company. You know, a high-profile fatality or injury takes an enormous amount of resources away from a company to help defend themselves against that crash. And heaven forbid, should they injure somebody during the use of a phone, whether it’s for personal use or requiring people to be on conference calls while they’re driving across the state.

Karen: Nationwide insurance, so they have a fleet of vehicles and they have representatives across the nation and their transportation percentage as far as the miles driven over the past several years, it’s gone up 20 percent. And so by implementing a comprehensive program that includes that senior level support, that includes the policies and procedures in the enforcement, but also the incentivizing for making healthy and good choices, they have been able to decrease the number of accidents and injuries by 53%, which is outstanding. That shows that with that leadership and that lead by example, that really does have a positive impact not only on the bottom line, but keeping employees healthier.

Dan: And I think that’s the important part, is that we also need to reward good drivers too, that are doing all these things. We shouldn’t just crack down on people who are doing the bad thing. But, you know, programs that package delivery services have on the number of miles and or months or years that you go without a crash or a payout are important, recognizing employees that are driving safely, that are doing that for a living are all very important.


Outro: Workplace Matters is supported by the national institute for occupational safety and health (OSHA). To listen to more podcasts, view our ongoing video series, or for more information about us, visit healthier workforce center (dot) org. Thank you.

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