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Driving in the Danger Zone

Published Tuesday Oct 2, 2018

Author Tim McCarty

Driving in the Danger Zone

Management guru Peter Drucker once stated, “The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or nonbusiness, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.” Now there’s not just an emphasis placed on productivity, but an expectation that it happens around the clock. This standard of connectedness has employees working at home, on vacation, and even while driving, which can result in fatal consequences.

The risks of being injured or killed on the road is rapidly increasing. Last year saw the largest increase in road fatalities in 53 years—an 8 percent increase over the previous year, according to the National Safety Council. What is notable about this statistic, though, is that it comes after years of declining fatalities. So what’s going on? Think about all the improvements in vehicles: airbags, antilock brakes, collision avoidance systems, automatic braking, lane departure warnings and highly engineered crumple zones to absorb the impact of a crash. All these innovations make for safer roads. With our vehicles objectively safer, it is our driving as a society that has become worse. The biggest culprits: distractions and fatigue.

Driving Distracted
Distractions behind the wheel come in all shapes and sizes, but smartphones are in a class all by themselves. Many people believe they can multitask: driving and texting, surfing the web or even just talking on the phone. What we don’t often hear is that multitasking is a myth and there isn’t a human being on the planet who can do it, although we deceive ourselves by something called rapid refocusing, which is quickly switching between two tasks.

Every time we switch between tasks, even for a second, we drop information critical to driving safely. It actually leads to a condition called “inattentional blindness,” or a failure to perceive something that is in plain sight, like a red light or child in a crosswalk. It’s no surprise that when we text and drive, our chance of a collision goes up 23 times, and when we talk on the phone, it goes up by a multiple of four.

And don’t think having employees talk or text on hands-free devices or through Bluetooth systems will decrease the chances of having an accident. Research shows it makes no difference in the cognitive distraction we face. Bottom line: When distracted, your brain isn’t on the important task of driving.

Driving While Tired
Then there is fatigue. It affects us all. We live in a fast-paced world and tend to burn the candle at both ends. A recent study by the National Sleep Foundation found that more than half of America’s drivers admitted to falling asleep at the wheel and that number could be higher. Microsleep is when we lose consciousness for a period of time, often feeling a head snap when coming awake again. It is a clear symptom of being overtired.

Sound familiar? The perception is that you were out for a fraction of a second, but it could have been minutes—all while hurtling down the road out of control. There are more than 300,000 fatigue-related collisions a year in the United States, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Helping Employees Drive Safely
So, what can you do at your own business to assist employees in avoiding distracted and fatigued driving? Successful driving safety plans include education as well as a company policy that prohibits distractions of any kind behind the wheel. This may be a difficult transition for some due to the concern of lost productivity due to lack of communication while on the road, but most studies show there is no loss of productivity and up to 17 percent of respondents in a recent survey indicated their productivity actually increased when they focused on their driving and calls separately.

Education is a key component to any change you are asking people to make and can lead to the aha moment when employees realize they aren’t any different from anyone else. They are all susceptible to distractions and fatigue. That understanding is key to changing behaviors, not just when management is watching, but when the driver is operating out on their own.

And that education shouldn’t be limited to drivers but also include those who interact with them, including dispatchers, managers and schedulers. They need to know that it is acceptable to have a driver call them back when it is safe to do so instead of immediately picking up, and to allow for adequate rest schedules. It’s a team effort. Managers and leaders should also be modeling these behaviors.

Both fatigued and distracted driving are leading causes of fatalities on roadways. It is difficult to estimate the combined impact of distractions and fatigue on driving performance, as they are studied independently, but we do know they are both important to address. We have the ability to reduce this risk for ourselves and those who work for us by taking concrete actions that empower employees to make good choices behind the wheel.

Tim McCarty directs the loss-control department at Clark Insurance based in Portland and with offices in Manchester, NH. For more information, visit

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