May 1, 2016 by Greg Meckbach, Associate Editor
Driver fatigue and distraction are major sources of commercial auto losses, insurance professionals report, and one expert contends that authorities need to provide more guidance on random drug and alcohol testing of employees. While texting and driving is getting a lot of attention, one commercial auto expert suggests that it is also dangerous for drivers to use hands-free devices because people are not good at multi-tasking.
“When we take a look at our losses and the leading frequencies and severities, many times the indication from the claims notes is people were looking at their cellphone, GPS or texting,” reports Rob Beneze, risk control consulting director, commercial auto for Continental Casualty Company, a CNA Financial Corporation company. “In that regard, distracted driving is a major focus for us when we look at losses from commercial auto.”
In addition, impairment from drugs and alcohol also contributes to losses, Beneze adds.
In Canada, “what we do tend to see is driver fatigue, or driver error in terms of being on the phone, reaching for their lunch and rolling the vehicle,” notes Ken Parsons, assistant vice president, commercial auto underwriting at CNA Canada. “The losses we have seen coming from either fatigue or distraction have been multi-million dollar losses.”
In the United States, 26% of auto crashes involve cellphone use, Beneze reports, quoting from the Itasca, Illinois-based National Safety Council.
“There are many other forms of distracted driving, but that has been getting most of our attention in helping to control that factor in commercial losses.”
In British Columbia, in 2014 alone, “66 people were killed and 631 were seriously injured in crashes with distracted or inattentive driving as a contributing factor,” a spokesperson for the province’s Ministry of Public Safety writes in an email to Canadian Underwriter.
The problem is being studied by experts with Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), part of Blacksburg-based Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
“Estimates based on cellphone records indicate that cellphone use among all drivers increases the risk of a crash by a factor of four,” VTTI researchers report in an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“Distracted driving has been defined as the diversion of attention away from activities critical for safe driving toward a competing activity,” the authors note in the article, Distracted Driving and Risk of Road Crashes among Novice and Experienced Drivers.
The authors were: VTTI director Thomas Dingus; three other VTTI academics (Sheila Klauer, Feng Guo and Suzanne Lee) and two researchers (Bruce Simons-Morton and Marie Claude Ouimet) from the Bethesda, Maryland-based Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Our analysis showed that the performance of secondary tasks, including dialing or reaching for a cellphone, texting, reaching for an object other than a cellphone, looking at a roadside object, and eating, was associated with a significantly increased risk of a crash or near-crash among novice drivers,” the authors report. “Among experienced drivers, only dialing a cellphone was
associated with an increased risk; data on secondary tasks performed by experienced drivers were collected before the widespread use of texting. The secondary tasks associated with the risk of a crash or near-crash all required the driver to look away from the road ahead,” they add.
Other organizations studying distracted driving include the Liberty Mutual Research Institute. In a paper in The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, three authors discuss the results of a study in which participants were given text-reading tasks while driving on a test track.
“One of the worst potential distractors is reading text information while driving, as it imposes both visual and cognitive interference to driving,” write Yulan Liang, William J Horrey and Joshua Hoffman in the paper, Reading Text While Driving: Understanding Drivers’ Strategic and Tactical Adaptation to Distraction.
Liang is a research scientist with Liberty Mutual Research Institute, Horrey is a senior research scientist at Liberty Mutual Research Institute and Hoffman is manager of enterprise user experience at Deere & Company, which makes farming, construction and forestry vehicles under the John Deere brand.
“We used a text-reading task as distraction to examine whether the type and timing of driving demands, and the formatting of text, influence
drivers’ strategic decision-making and tactical time-sharing in a situation in which drivers are fully aware of workload levels and transitions,” the authors write in the Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. In their study, they “hypothesized that drivers would choose the area with relatively low driving demands to initiate text reading.”
However, most participants in that study “initiated the secondary task before they had passed the demand zone even though they would have had enough time to complete.”
Other research – conducted in conjunction with VTTI – shows that a driver’s crash or “near crash” rate “nearly tripled when reaching for, answering or dialing a cellphone,” reports the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) of Arlington, Virginia.
In an experiment, VTTI researchers “coded a near-crash event when drivers braked hard or made a sudden evasive manoeuvre to avoid a conflict,”IIHS reports.
“Distracted driving is a huge issue right now,” contends Rick Geller, Toronto-based vice president and transportation industry leader at Marsh Risk Consulting. “When we are talking distracted driving, we tend to focus in on smartphones and cellphones and hands-free, those kinds of issues. But really, when you are talking distracted driving, anything that takes your eyes off the road for more than about two seconds falls into that category of causing a distraction. Things like eating, shuffling paper, looking at GPS screens,” Geller explains.
What is worse is that operators who use hands-free devices to talk on their mobile phones are not necessarily giving their full attention to the road, and Geller suggests that insurance providers “need to raise awareness” of this fact.
“When you are talking on the phone, whether it’s hands-free or actually holding the device, your ability to process moving images decreases by about a third, and your field of view narrows by about 50%,” Geller warns. “Hands- free is not risk-free. From a distracted driving point of view, it is not the fact that you are holding the device in your hand that’s the problem. It’s having the conversation and how that impacts people’s brains,” he points out.
When multi-tasking, people’s brains need to “toggle” between the functions they are trying to perform,
Geller explains. To illustrate that point, “I ask people to say the letters A to I as quickly as you can and then say the numbers 1 to 9 as quickly as you can,” he says.
“Most people can rattle them off fairly quickly. But then if you try and go ‘A1B2C3,’ watch how much that slows you down, because your brain has to toggle between letters and numbers.”
Driving while drowsy is also a problem among commercial operators, Geller suggests. “It goes beyond just compliance with the hours of service regulations,” he says, referring to federal and provincial regulations that stipulate hours of service.
In Canada, the federal government regulates commercial drivers’ hours of service, for commercial operators who cross provincial borders, Geller notes, reporting that “most often” the federal and provincial hours of service regulations “mirror each other.”
In Ontario, for example, commercial drivers “must have 10 hours off-duty in a day,” the Ministry of Transportation explains. Drivers are not allowed to drive more than 13 hours in a day and may not drive after being on duty for 14 hours, the ministry adds.
“Typically, when people look at drowsy driving, they are usually thinking after midnight and certainly that is one of peak times, but there is also a peak time of 2 pm to 4 pm,” Geller notes.
Alistair MacLean agrees, noting the other peak time for crashes is between 4 and 6 am.
“Those both coincide with our biological alertness rhythm,” reports MacLean, a psychology professor at Kingston, Ontario-based Queen’s University. MacLean’s areas of expertise include the effect of sleep loss and sleepiness on skills such as driving.
“It’s great saying you’ve got enough time to get good sleep but if that’s between 8 am and 4 pm, and you are typically on a daytime cycle, your body isn’t ready to go to sleep at that time,” MacLean contends. “So I think getting the balance between the amount of sleep and the pattern of sleep is probably an important factor.”
But MacLean notes the role of the circadian rhythm is not well-understood.
“Our attentional capacity waxes and wanes throughout the 24-hour period, as does our level of sleepiness,” MacLean explains. “So sleep is not something that, as it were, you could just pick up and teleport to any part of the 24 hours.”
MacLean is co-author of a paper, published in 2001 in Accident Analysis and Prevention, titled How do prolonged wakefulness and alcohol compare in the decrements they produce on a simulated driving task.
MacLean’s co-authors were Queen’s Psychology professor Gerald Wilde, J. Todd Arnedt (then a Queen’s PhD student) and Dr. Peter Munt (founder and director of the Sleep Laboratory at Kingston General Hospital, who died in 2012).
Those researchers “looked at the relationship between alcohol and sleep loss,” MacLean recounts.
“If you’ve got somebody getting up at 8 in the morning, and then staying up all day and then driving through the following night, by about 2:30 am their driving is as bad as if they had (.05%) blood alcohol level, and by 5 am it is as bad as if they were at .08% blood alcohol level,” MacLean suggests.
“We thought, ‘Society has already decided that .05 or .08% blood alcohol level is unacceptable,’ so we used those as standards against which to judge the sleepy driving,” MacLean reports.
CATCHING TIPSY DRIVERS
It is a criminal offence in Canada to drive with a blood alcohol level of .08% or greater. However, some provinces have administrative suspension programs for drivers with lower blood alcohol levels, MADD Canada reports.
British Columbia, for example, has had an automatic roadside prohibition regime (ARP) since 2010. The province imposes a mandatory driving prohibition when a motorist registers a warn (blood alcohol level of .05% or more) or fail (.08% or more) on a screening device.
That regime was challenged, unsuccessfully, on constitutional grounds by Richard Goodwin and other B.C. motorists who had been subject to 90-day roadside driving prohibitions – and had their vehicles impounded 30 days – after either failing to provide breath samples or failing the roadside breath tests ordered by police or peace officers.
Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), which had intervener status in Goodwin’s appeal, gives examples of measures proposed and in place in Canadian provinces and territories.
For example, the Saskatchewan government amended its Traffic Safety Act to “provide for immediate licence suspension for drivers who have [blood alcohol concentration] of .04% or more, immediate roadside vehicle impoundment, and increased penalties for new drivers found operating vehicles while having consumed alcohol or drugs,” IBC reports.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruling, Richard James Goodwin, et al. v. British Columbia (Superintendent of Motor Vehicles), et al. which upheld roadside licence suspensions and vehicle impoundments in B.C., was released October 16, 2015. Goodwin and the other motorists argued, among other things, that the province did not have the power to impose penalties on motorists found to be impaired because the constitution gives the federal government exclusive power over criminal law.
But all seven Supreme Court of Canada judges who heard the case disagreed.
“No doubt the ARP scheme has incidental impacts on criminal law,” Justice Andromache Karakatsanis wrote on behalf of six of the seven judges who heard the case.
“No doubt it targets, in part, specific criminal activity and imposes serious consequences, without the protections attendant on criminal investigations and prosecutions,” Justice Karakatsanis noted of B.C.’s ARP system. “However, the consequences relate to the regulation of driving privileges.”
Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin dissented, in part, but not on the division of powers issue.
As an intervener, IBC’s submission was limited to the division of powers between the provinces and the federal government.
“As it relates to this case, the actual historical loss data used by insurers is presently based on the provincial administrative and civil impaired driving regimes and other comparable safety schemes in place,” IBC notes in its factum.
“IBC submits that the striking down of the ARP regime, and similar provincial and civil impaired driving legislation, would have the effect of increasing road collisions to a degree that is not reflected in current insurers’ historical claims records and premiums.”
Since B.C. implemented its automatic roadside suspensions in 2010, there has been “a 52% decrease in drinking and driving fatalities,” the B.C. Public Safety spokesperson writes.
LACK OF GUIDANCE
“Incidents of a commercial motor vehicle driver being impaired and involved in an accident is almost unheard of,” says Geller. “It’s probably less than 1% of crashes. It’s a very, very rare occurrence.”
However, he adds, “there are a couple of public policy issues we need some guidelines on.”
One is medical use of marijuana, which “really does require further study,” Geller contends. “Right now people are authorized to use it, but it hasn’t been studied enough to make it on to the list of prescribed medications and that kind of creates a grey area and some difficulty for how companies should manage it.”
The other public policy issue in need of further guidance is alcohol and drug testing for workers in safety-sensitive positions, Geller suggests.
One organization implementing random drug and alcohol testing for employees, in safety-sensitive positions, is the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).
“We will now take steps over the next few months to finalize the program, including hiring a third party to administer and implement random alcohol and drug testing at the TTC,” the transit commission’s chief executive officer, Andy Byford, writes in an April 18 letter to Toronto public transit employees.
“Since 2010, when the Fitness for Duty policy allowing for several forms of testing, but not random testing, was implemented, there have been continued instances of impairment while at work,” Byford writes. “That is simply unacceptable. How do we not strengthen our existing Fitness for Duty policy with a proven deterrence of random testing?”
In 2014,” there were 16 cases of impairment or refusal to take an impairment test, 30 such instances in 2015 and six from January to the end of March this year,” a TTC spokesperson writes in an email to Canadian Underwriter. It was not clear whether or not all of those employees were drivers.
The issue of random drug and alcohol testing in the workplace was the subject of a Supreme Court of Canada ruling, in 2013, in the case of Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, Local 30 v. Irving Pulp & Paper, Ltd.
“The fact that a workplace is found to be dangerous does not automatically give the employer the right to impose random testing unilaterally,” wrote Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, on behalf of six of the nine Supreme Court of Canada judges, in Irving. “The dangerousness of the workplace has only justified the testing of particular employees in certain circumstances: where there are reasonable grounds to believe that the employee was impaired while on duty, where the employee was directly involved in a workplace accident or significant incident, or where the employee returns to work after treatment for substance abuse.”
In 2006, Irving Pulp and Paper Ltd. brought in random alcohol testing for employees at a mill in Saint John, New Brunswick. CEP Local 30 filed a grievance challenging the random testing aspect of the policy. An arbitration board allowed CEP’s grievance, but the board’s ruling was set aside – by the New Brunswick Court of Queen’s Bench – on judicial review.
The New Brunswick Court of Appeal also disagreed with the arbitration board, but the Supreme Court of Canada allowed CEP’s appeal, with the majority agreeing with the arbitration board, in that Irving “had not demonstrated the requisite problems with dangerousness or increased safety concerns such as workplace alcohol use that would justify universal random testing.”
The arbitration board held that random alcohol testing was “an unreasonable exercise of management rights” under its collective agreement with CEP.
Quoting from case history, Justice Abella noted the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled in the past that “seizure of bodily samples is highly intrusive and … subject to stringent standards and safeguards to meet constitutional requirements.”
In Irving, “the Supreme Court said employers have to show drug and alcohol abuse is a problem,” the TTC spokesperson told Canadian Underwriter. “Because we see these numbers continue to rise, we have an obligation as a public transit agency and as an employer of 14,000 people to make the TTC as safe as we can possibly make it.”
TTC’s policy applies to all employees in safety-sensitive positions.
For alcohol and drug testing for people in safety sensitive positions, “there does need to be further independent study so that we can come up with guidelines and not after the fact,” Geller says, commenting in general and not on the TTC specifically or on the Irving ruling. “Let’s have the discussion now while it is still philosophical.”
There are privacy issues involved in random drug and alcohol testing of commercial drivers, suggests CNA Canada’s Ken Parsons.
“Each case will have to be measured on its own merits,” Parsons says, commenting in general and not on either the TTC or the Irving decision. “We are extremely sensitive, at least in Canada, that it has to be germane to the employment and we have to respect the rights of the individual and the courts will hold us to an extremely high standard.”
But the hazards of impaired, distracted or drowsy drivers can be mitigated with autonomous vehicles, Parsons suggests.
“It won’t eliminate all of the accidents but will eliminate a great percentage of them,” Parsons predicts, pointing out that the computers that control autonomous vehicles “can’t get drunk and they can’t get stoned.”
Driver assist technologies – such as forward collision warning, adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning systems – “are helping improve driver and vehicle safety,” Beneze reports.
“If you keep in mind that driver error is considered to be a 90% contributor to automobile accidents, when you have autonomous vehicles that are programmed to do everything correctly, I am not saying you will get rid of 90% of the automobile accidents, but it will reduce them significantly as we have more autonomous vehicles on the road,” Beneze believes.