Distracted driving was the topic for a panel that included from left Mike Elmenhorst Groendyke Transport Inc Tracy Henke NTTC Todd Stine Carbon Express Inc and NTTC Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year and Terry Kolacki GLS Transport Inc

Distracted driving requires drastic action by truck fleets, motorists in general

Aug. 4, 2017
NTTC Tank Truck Safety & Security Council annual meeting discusses distracted driving.

AT any given daylight moment, there are 660,000 drivers that are using electronic devices in the United States while driving.

In 2012, 421,000 drivers were involved in car crashes that involved distracted drivers and resulted in 3,328 fatalities.

The National Safety Center’s early estimate for 2016 shows traffic fatalities exceeded 40,000. Fatalities have been up 6% since 2015 and 14% since 2014—the biggest two-year increase in 53 years.

This issue is one of the single greatest threats to road safety today. So, what can trucking do to help?

National Tank Truck Carriers convened a panel to tackle the topic in “Eyes Wide Shut: The Truth About Distracted Driving,” which was presented during the Tank Truck Safety & Security Council annual meeting June 20-22 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Panelists included: Todd Stine, Carbon Express Inc, 2016-2017 Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year; Terry Kolacki, GLS Transport Inc, 2016 Outstanding Safety Professional of the Year/Sutherland Division; and Mike Elmenhorst, Groendyke Transport Inc, 2016 Outstanding Safety Professional of the Year/Harvison Division. The moderator was Tracy Henke, NTTC director of education and publications.

Q: How do you stay safe on the road?

Stine: For me, staying safe is most importantly about staying focused. We spend a lot of hours behind the wheel. You have to stay focused. You have to pay attention. You have to put away any form of distraction. That’s not just a cell phone. If I’m going to a place I’ve never been to before, I’ll put that in my GPS before I hit the road—not while I’m going down the road. My cell phone is face down on the passenger seat when driving. If I get a text, I ignore it. If I get an email or response from social media, I ignore it. The cell phone is the easiest thing in the world to ignore.

Q: Do you target specific CSA scores or do anything else to try to improve your company’s safety record? How do you measure it internally?

Elmenhorst: We watch our CSA scores. We pay a lot of attention to our DOT numbers. We go through the training. We have a cell phone policy, hands-free. It would be nice if we could get away from the cell phone. I set my phone out of the way. If they really need to get ahold of me, they’ll call me and I can pull over. We use our field safety coordinators to do road observations and make sure our drivers are not using cell phones. We get motorist complaints once in a while for that. At all 29 terminals, it’s safety always. It’s not going to get any better. It just continues to get worse.
We tell our transportation coordinators and dispatchers not to call drivers on their phone.

Kolacki: We definitely watch our CSA scores. It’s critical to us because our stakeholders depend on us being a safe carrier. If our scores go up, we’re not going to have that many customers anymore. A lot of these veterans in this meeting taught me that if safety and maintenance are working in your company, everything else will fall into place. We’re fortunate that we’re able to get our drivers back to our location within two or three weeks. Whether we have to do a one-on-one or get their maintenance done, they’re always coming back to the terminal. That’s a plus, being a small carrier.

Q: We’ve all heard the horror stories. I know I’ve seen car crashes. There was a gentleman who drove head on into a cement pylon. It was awful. Over the course of your careers, whether they’re tractor-trailer rigs or regular passenger vehicles, have you guys seen things damaged or destroyed through distracted driving?

Elmenhorst: We’ve seen more than we want to see. It continues to get worse. I think the one that comes to my mind is one we were involved in. There was a head-on. On a Sunday morning, a young lady was coming around a curve and came in front of our driver. There was nothing that could be done. While there was never any hard evidence, I always thought she was probably texting on her phone. It’s sad. We’re always carrying cell phones around. We’re always looking at them. It’s addictive.

Stine: I’ve been driving for 17 years professionally. It’s very alarming, just in the past five years, how much of a problem this is. It seems like one out of three vehicles that passes me has a driver with a cell phone in his/her hand. You don’t know whether they’re texting or emailing or browsing the web. Regardless of what they’re doing, they are definitely distracted. I’ve seen that in high-traffic areas. At traffic lights, the problem gets worse. We’re seeing incidents where the light turns red and a car slams into another car because that driver is not paying attention. On the opposite extreme, we’re at a red light and see everyone whipping their phones out. How long does a traffic light stay red? 30 seconds? I’ve noticed quite often that when that light turns green, the three or four cars in front of that car will go but that car is just sitting there, not paying attention. I’m out there all day, every day. I see this. The problem is not getting any smaller. It’s only getting bigger. As far as a horror story: I was driving through an interstate construction zone. I was going at the posted speed limit and being passed by a charter bus. I’m looking at my mirror and thinking, “This is crazy. It’s kind of narrow. Why are you passing me?” I see that bus going close to my tank trailer. I’m practically rubbing the barriers with my tires to get away from this guy and avoid getting into a collision. I slowed down, and just as he passed us, I see that this professional driver has a cell phone in his hand. That is absolutely crazy, with that many lives at stake. It’s just got to stop. When it comes to people talking about just deactivating cell phones when they’re in motion, that’s not going to happen. Passengers are saying, “Why can’t I use my phone?” If Company A says, “Our phones can’t be used while driving,” they’re going to go to Company B.

Kolacki: Most of the accidents I’ve seen in my career have pretty much all involved being distracted in one form or another. With our own drivers, just the fact that it is a Friday and the driver has a vacation set up and is going to head off with his family is enough distraction to put him out of his normal behavior to make him rush, and that’s usually where you find an accident—with a behavioral change. Most of the distractions, even our stability events, will come on a Monday or a Friday. Monday because our driver didn’t leave early enough on Sunday to plan his day. He’s rushing the following day and going too fast around a curve or following somebody too close. These cellphones are a huge problem even when you have a company policy that says, “When the tires are spinning, there’s no talking.” Recently I was on the National Safety Council website, trying to find something else. They actually have a pledge that you will be an attentive driver. I’ve added that to our cell phone policy—not only pledging to the company that you will be a safe driver, but to your family and friends. Hopefully this will put a little more skin in the game for our drivers.

Q: How are you enforcing these policies? It’s well and good to have a policy, but what is the enforcement looking like? And how does it extend to families?

Kolacki: Well, as I mentioned, we have a cell phone policy in place that they have to use a hands-free if they’re going to use it. We do field observation of them. We really try to drive that home, because distracted driving is as bad as drunk driving. That’s been proven. I saw something at a conference recently where they went through all of that. I won’t tell you I have 100% compliance. And with my wife, even when she’s driving with me, I let her read the stuff off my phone to me if I think it’s necessary. In today’s business world, I think we are way too connected. We just need to keep it out in front of the public. As Todd mentioned, we have got to do something.

Stine: Our company’s policy on cell phones is fairly simple. The first time you’re caught using your cell phone while driving, you get a week off without pay. The second time is a little more harsh: it’s termination. That’s how serious we are about this. As most of you know, I do another gig on the side. I go around educating the general public on how to share road safely with large trucks. One thing I focus on a lot is education about distracted driving. Count to five with your eyes closed. Would you do that going down the road? That five seconds is how long it takes for you to take your eyes off the road to look at your phone to see who sent you the message, without even reading the message, until you get your eyes back on the road. In that five seconds, you have traveled the length of a football field, plus the end zones. In that distance, did you see the dog along the side of the road? Did you see the boy chasing the ball rolling across the street? I can’t be any more serious. This is a big problem. It’s got to stop. My job is to go out and educate the general public about the cost of distracted driving and the enforcement. One thing that really bothers me is if you’re driving a personal vehicle and you get stopped for distracted driving, it’s a state offense. Usually it varies from $50 to $150, with no points on your license. It’s basically a slap on the wrist. But for me as professional driver, if I get stopped for distracted driving, it’s a federal offense or state offense. Know what the penalty for me is? $2,750 and points on my license, and my company gets a fine for $11,000. So if I come back to my terminal after my boss just got done writing an $11,000 check, do you think he’s going to go, “Hello, Todd, how was your day?” I don’t think so.

Elmenhorst: We need to start in our office with our dispatchers. It’s very easy now to check the status of a driver. You can just look at your computer and see that guy’s driving. No call. Don’t bother him. He’s driving. Send him a message: “Call me at your next stop when it’s safe to call.” Nothing is that important that you have to turn around and call. We started with the pledge from the safety council, and started there with the cell phone policy: Before you call, take a look at their status. Don’t bother them. I take it real seriously because my wife loved to talk on that phone. I got her convinced to put that cell phone away. I also have two kids that just started driving. My son and my daughter, I make sure they take the pledge. You’ll never see me on the phone in the car with them. I will not take it out.

Q: It was brought out that there’s a parallel between drunk driving and distracted driving. With distracted driving reaching epidemic levels, there is pressure for a public awareness campaign because driving drunk used to be no big deal. Over the years, the public culture has shifted on that. And it began with a public awareness campaign called, “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” It gained speed and traction and became a complete cultural shift. What can we do to start looking for a solution? What steps would you like NTTC start to take—as well as our carrier and fleet members and even the shipping community—to make an impact on distracted driving?

Kolacki: It would be really awesome if it could be just as simple as having a bumper sticker on your vehicle that said, “I pledge to be an attentive driver.” Or if there was some way to put on social media that it’s cool to be an attentive driver. But the cell phone is an addiction with kids. But any type of advertising we could put out about making sure that an attentive driver is a safe driver who wants to get home to his family—something that will try to spread the word in that way would be very beneficial to us. You see the graphics on the back of some of the trailers that say, “My mom or dad is driving this vehicle. They need to make this delivery to get home safe. So put your cell phones away.” Something that’s going to stand out when somebody’s behind you.

Stine: I’m all for putting stickers on a truck or trailer. One of the billboard signs I see most often is a picture of an ambulance. And next to the picture of the ambulance it says, “Do not let them respond to your texts.” Simple things like that. Another one I see shows a picture of a tombstone. And it says, “Don’t let your next text be your last text.” Just a simple message like that on stickers, billboards, magazines. You’ve just got to get the message out. That’s the most we can do other than enforcement—spread the message.

Elmenhorst: Drunk driving when I was younger was more accepted than it is now, and it’s all because of social pressure. We’ve got to start somewhere. Whether it’s bumper stickers or newspapers, we have to get the message out there. When I’m driving in my car and stopping at a stop sign or stop light, I’m looking to see if that person is looking, and lot of the time the head is down. Maybe we can get people to accept that they are not going to get a new text or message while that vehicle is moving. That has to be for a time limit after the vehicle stops, or otherwise they’re all on their phones at stop lights. We’ve got to start somewhere.   ♦