New Year, New Distractions

Originally published in Fleet Management Weekly 01/05/2022

By Paul Atchley, PhD, eDriving’s Brain Science Advisor

Firstly, in a bit of good news for the coming year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has indicated that it will examine why Tesla drivers can play video games on their cars’ center consoles while driving!! As drivers (and the public) discovered after a recent car software update, they can now initiate playing an arcade-style shooter, solitaire or a strategy game on their car’s center display while driving their Tesla, provided they indicate they are the passenger. If that sounds distracting, it’s because IT IS – even if it is truly the passenger tap-tapping on a display that is intended to help the driver drive safely. I’m pleased that the federal safety folks are looking into it!!

From research conducted in my lab at the University of Florida we know that drivers are more willing to rate a technology as “safe”, and to use it while driving, if it is built into the car. Drivers appear to assume that car design is highly regulated and tested for safety. While that may be true for some aspects of a car, it is less so for the myriad electronic add-ons. While there are guidelines, such as designing center displays that take no more than a two-second glance to use, these guidelines are not federally tested before cars hit the showroom floor. And, in an era where new features can be downloaded overnight by the manufacturer, there may be no checks in place.

This all points to new challenges for those who drive for work purposes, and for fleet safety managers who are trying to keep their drivers safe. The challenge of smartphones in cars is not declining. With more phone apps than ever being used for work and communications with colleagues, phones are as important as ever to workers, inevitably leading to phone use while driving. The hybridization of work (sharing time between work at the office and work at home) is only accelerating car time as possible work time. And if Tesla is any indication, the rush to smarter cars is bringing additional, unanticipated risks.

The new year is a good time for companies to re-evaluate their driving safety policies and practices. This should start with the way the company anticipates work to be conducted in the coming year. For example, does management expect more employees to work from home or in a hybrid mode? If so, one conversation should be about how technology is being used to support a hybrid office. Are more meetings, or even all meetings, employing a technology-supported mode (e.g., Teams, Zoom, etc.)? If so, safety professionals need to examine if there are good policies and accompanying training, monitoring and enforcement in place to ensure that a hybrid office doesn’t include the car as a workspace – unless safely parked away from traffic in a well-lit area – and doesn’t permit people to join a meeting while behind the wheel. New training about a safe hybrid workplace is a great topic for the new year.

The beginning of the new year is also a good time for an organization to look at the vehicles that make up its fleet, and to evaluate all of the safety features and the possible distractions that might detract from safe operation. Hopefully no one is faced with video games being installed in their fleet overnight, but new infotainment systems can pose new distractions.

The new year is a GREAT time to make sure driver training is up to date, as new safety features can pose a risk if drivers are not fully trained on what the features can and cannot do. For example, radar- and camera-supported adaptive cruise control is often accompanied by technology to slow down or stop the car in case of driver failure to do so. But these technologies differ between manufacturers. Some provide simple warnings, and some can fully engage the braking systems. We don’t have to train drivers to pump the brakes anymore, but fleet safety managers should understand the safety features their drivers will encounter and develop training to help drivers understand what the features will and won’t do.

Right now, and for a while to come, we are in a murky middle space where drivers might not fully appreciate the new complexity of their cars and there is more pressure to make road time, work time. There is reason to hope that continued advances in safety technology and the possibility of decreased road miles with more work from home can reduce overall risk. With collaboration between workers, management, and fleet safety professionals, this uncertain future doesn’t have to put people at greater risk when they’re behind the wheel.

About Paul Atchley
eDriving’s Brain Science Advisor, Paul Atchley, PhD, is the University of South Florida’s Senior Associate Vice President and Dean of Undergraduate Studies. As a Professor of Psychology, he specializes in research in cognitive factors, including the implications of multitasking on driving.