Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans’ driving habits changed. Stay-at-home orders, telecommuting, and other factors led to a decrease in the number of drivers on the road. Yet, according to early estimates by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 38,680 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2020—the largest projected number of fatalities since 2007. This represents a 7.2% increase in fatalities from the previous year. What accounts for this apparent anomaly? Are there any lessons commercial fleet operators may glean? A recent study sponsored by NHTSA and performed by the Virginia Tech Transportation Research Institute offers some valuable takeaways for safety professionals seeking to mitigate safety risks posed by driver distractions and fatigue.
Published in August 2021 and entitled “Analysis of Naturalistic Driving Data to Assess Distraction and Drowsiness in Drivers of Commercial Motor Vehicles,” the study analyzed more than 3.8 million miles of data from 225 vehicles and 245 drivers from 7 commercial fleets. While there is no shortage of data pointing to the effectiveness of video-based onboard monitoring data to identify and augment unsafe driver behaviors, the study sought to quantify the impact of “qualitative” issues such as driver fatigue and distraction. The study confirmed many of known mitigation strategies—e.g., hands-free devices are significantly safer than handheld phones—but also offered insights that are not so intuitive.
In their analysis of environmental factors contributing to safety critical events (SCEs), researchers found that a majority of SCEs occurred in daylight under non-adverse conditions in moderate or low-traffic areas. While the study offers no ultimate conclusions, the findings suggest that relatively safe driving conditions can lull drivers into a false sense of security on the road. In these circumstances, a driver may feel more comfortable engaging in the risky behaviors known to cause SCEs. The implications seem clear—less-crowded roads do not necessarily equate to a reduction in accidents. On the contrary, emptier roads and favorable road conditions appear to increase risky driver behavior due to the lowered perception of risk.
In terms of driver behavior, the study confirmed that external distractions, including reaching for food items, adjusting clothing, and adjusting and/or monitoring GPS or satellite radio, all increased the risk of being involved in an SCE. The time taken by a driver to attend to these tasks resulted, on average, in four seconds of his or her eyes being off the road. While a driver’s eyes being off the road for any time is unsafe, the study found there is a significant increase in the likelihood of being involved in a SCE event when the driver is distracted for two or more seconds.
The study also examined measures to mitigate driver drowsiness. Researchers found that driver talking and/or singing—to an imaginary audience or to another person via a hands-free device—resulted in less drowsiness and reduced chances of involvement in an SCE. Perhaps the most humorous finding of the study demonstrated that driver dancing resulted in significantly decreased drowsiness. Although the study fell short of advocating dance lessons as part of driver training curricula, encouraging drivers to sing along to their favorite tunes may go a long way in counteracting fatigue and other subjective hazards.