Distraction guidelines as a telematics business opportunity

Distraction guidelines as a telematics business opportunity


The proposed distraction guidelines from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) may curtail some of the freedom that the automotive industry enjoys when it comes to integrating connected services into vehicles. Phase one of the proposed guidelines, introduced at the end of February, focuses specifically on limiting distractions from the human machine interface, as NHTSA research reveals that visual-manual means of interactionwith in-vehicle systems contribute to most distracted-driving-related accidents. 

Furthermore, phase two of the guidelines will address limiting distractions from devices or systems that aren’t built into the vehicle but are used while driving—namely, cell phones and PNDs. Impacts from these guidelines may extend to limiting the ways in which smartphones can be harnessed for in-dash connectivity. (For more on the NHTSA guidelines, see DOT’s distraction guidelines as challenge and opportunity and What DOT’s new distraction guidelines mean for telematics.)

Before the industry assumes a doom-and-gloom posture, however, it’s worth considering how distraction guidelines and regulations typically impact the telematics industry. In doing so, it becomes apparent that trying to eliminate distraction in a world hooked on connectivity creates a premium on some of the very solutions that the telematics industry is selling.

The distraction premium

The recent hand-held phone ban from Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is case in point.“In one respect, the FMCSA and NHTSA regulations are apples and oranges,” says Matt Howard, founder of ZoomSafer. “On the other hand, very instructive parallels can be drawn.”

In 2011, FMCSA passed a law prohibiting hand-held cell phone use by interstate truck and bus drivers. If the administration catches drivers violating the law, it doles out its most severe category of fines.Drivers incur $2,750 per infraction, and employers get slapped with up to $11,000 in penalties. “It’s real money,” says Howard. “It also has a relatively higher impact on your CFA score, which in the for-hire truck and fleet world is a big deal.”

ZoomSafer recently concluded a survey of 570 executives in the fleet space. The survey found that the cell phone ban has quickly had an impact on industry practices. The number of commercial fleet operators that have adopted written policies pertaining to employee use of cell phones while driving on-the-job has increased 31 percent in the past nine months, from 62 percent in May 2011 to 81 percent in February 2012.

Furthermore, the survey found that the number of companies claiming to enforce their established cell phone use policies increased 70 percent in the past nine months, from 53 percent in May 2011 to 90 percent in February 2012. Howard likens it to the FMCSA’s hours of service regulation, which requires commercial trucking industry to document hours of service. Fleets “were freaking out when this first came up,” he says. “Today they’ve figured it out.” (For more from Matt Howard, see A cell phone ban has "potentially massive ramifications"Why telematics is the answer to distracted driving, and Telematics, cell phone use and workers’ comp liability.)

Enforcement encourages technology

Although most fleets are now claiming to enforce their cell phone use policies, the ZoomSafer study suggests that monitoring is a challenge when it comes to distraction violations. Most drivers own their own cell phones, rather than company-provided feature phones or Blackberries. As a result, enforcement is typically reactionary instead of proactive, and loopholes often plague the system.

The most common enforcement methods include “Random Safety Audits” (71.9 percent), “Post-Crash Discipline” (51.8 percent), and “Peer Reporting” (49.6 percent). Less than one-third (33.1 percent) of respondents reported that they were “very confident” that their companies’ current enforcement methods were sufficient to ensure compliance with FMCSA cell phone regulations. “This is an opportunity for technology to step in,” says Howard, “and it’s the same sort of thing we may see with NHTSA’s impending regulations.”

In FMCSA’s case, Bluetooth and embedded hands-free services can help mitigate driver infractions. The survey found that such solutions aren’t lost on industry execs. Twenty percent offleets plan to investigate technology-based compliance solutions within the next twelve months, the survey revealed, and 21 percent plan to explore smartphone software solutions within the same time frame to automate employee compliance with FMCSA cell phone rules.

For NHTSA, reducing the manual-visual engagement of a driver on secondary tasks will put an onus on services like text-to-speech, intuitive control, and preset preferences so that drivers are encouraged to follow the law. “These days the phone is just another set of controls in the car,” says Howard. “There’s the gas pedal, break pedal, steering wheel, and now the phone. It’s the fourth ubiquitous control. Everyone has a phone, it just is nomadic, it’s mobile, it comes with the car, it goes with the car.”

And it’s on telematics companies to rise to the challenge—companies like Airbiquity, which is alreadyworking with OEMs to help combat distracted driving by safely integrating consumer’s technology into their vehicles. Likewise, the US Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory just unveiled a computer algorithm that makes it possible for cell phones to detect when a text is being sent by the driver of a moving vehicle. The engineers’ research found that drivers of moving vehicles type texts at a consistently slower speed and with different groupings of keystrokes, which means the properly targeted algorithm can lock down the texting function for drivers while enabling it for the passengers beside them. In the coming months, technologies like these are bound to gain momentum.

Andrew Tolve is a regular contributor to TU.

For more on the fleet space, visit Telematics for Fleet Management Europe 2012 on March 26-27 in Amsterdam.

For more all the latest telematics trends, check out Content & Apps for Automotive 2012 on April 18-19 in Germany, Insurance Telematics Europe 2012 on May 9-10 in London, Telematics Detroit 2012 on June 6-7, and Insurance Telematics USA 2012 in September in Chicago.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports on In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration ReportHuman Machine Interface Technologies and Smart Vehicle Technology: The Future of Insurance Telematics.

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