Eyes on the Road

STRAPPING yourself behind the wheel of a vehicle and hitting the road is always a dicey proposition. No matter how proficient a driver you are (or think you are), there are always hundreds of others strapped and revving behind their respective wheels just beyond your driveway, and they're all hell-bent on getting there first. With their cellphones turned on.

As my mother, the original "Road Worrier," always told me, usually while denying me keys to the family sedan, "It's not you I'm concerned about--it's everyone else." And, in retrospect, I do now see her point.

For those of you who drive as part of your work--and not just to work, like most of us--here is some sobering news: Not only have vehicles been the major cause of U.S. workplace fatalities every year for more than half a century, but, based on national averages, at least four of you will die in a roadway crash today. Tomorrow, too.

It doesn't take a higher degree in mathematics to deduce the staggering costs associated with such regular, daily tragedies, to say nothing of the countless minor crashes and near misses. A higher degree of safety, however, could help reduce the sheer numbers.

Driver's Ed
Various factors contribute to crashes. Commonly cited causes are equipment malfunction (blowouts, brake failures, steering malfunctions), bad roadway design, poor roadway maintenance, and so on. No cause, though, is more cited than driver (mis)behavior: driving too fast; failing to signal; tailgating; failing to yield the right of way; disregarding traffic controls; driving while drinking, eating, daydreaming, applying cosmetics, and other acts of daredevilry. Experts say more than 95 percent of vehicle crashes involve some degree of improper driver behavior, even when other factors such as roadway maintenance are also involved.

Managers at companies that operate fleets are well aware of such facts. Theirs is the daily task of dealing with the critical occupational element of monitoring their drivers' behavior and changing it when necessary. On at least some level, they, too, have to be "Road Worriers," concerned not just with their own operators but with all of the other drivers out there, any of whom can at any given intersection directly affect their company's insurance costs and bottom line.

Like everyone else, fleet managers know that the most effective safe driving motivator of all time is a police car in one's rearview mirror. They realize, too, of course, that there simply aren't enough cops for that to make a measurable difference. Part of a fleet manager's job is to find and use measures that will make a difference.

To assist in such management, increasingly more companies are turning to technology, doing a little less road worrying and engaging in a lot more road watching. Miniature cameras in commercial vehicles of all types--shuttle vans, buses, taxis, limos, and the like--are becoming ubiquitous. And while this development has an inescapably Orwellian aspect to it, the resulting surveillance is having its intended effect, according to many in the insurance industry, which has a vested interest in keeping tabs on such matters.

Designed primarily for the safety of fleet drivers and passengers alike, the cameras are also proving useful for improving loss prevention and generating cost savings in other ways, including lower insurance rates. In this regard, San Diego-based DriveCam Video Systems is ahead of the industry curve. Using its proprietary HindSight 20/20 management software in tandem with its on-board, G-force sensitive camera, DriveCam is taking "reality TV" and fleet safety technology to a whole new level.

Lights, DriveCam, Action!
Mounted near a vehicle's rearview mirror, the company's palm-sized video recorder, dubbed the DriveCam, automatically records the sights and sounds of an event when activated by a built-in accelerometer that detects sudden changes in vehicle velocity or when a driver manually activates it with the push of a button. The tamper-proof unit's G-force sensitivity level is fully adjustable by fleet managers, who download the recorded events into a computer loaded with the HindSight 20/20 software for frame-by-frame viewing and analysis, leading possibly to driver counseling or to determining fault in the case of an accident.

The DriveCam's outward-facing lens captures activity within a 110-degree field of vision, roughly what the driver sees, and its built-in microphone picks up audio inside and outside the vehicle. Although the camera is loop-recording all of the time, its functionality is exception-based, set off only by unusual motion such as swerving, hard braking, sudden acceleration, or the jolt of a collision. Then, it provides a "saved" recording in clear color footage of about 10 seconds before and 10 seconds after the event that triggered it.

"Ten seconds on either side [of an incident] is a long time, believe it or not," said Richard Doherty, director of fleet services at Empire International Ltd., a New Jersey-based provider of chauffeured transportation that has DriveCams in 350 of its vehicles. "It shows the cause and effect. We've witnessed some pretty amazing things with it."

Doherty described an incident in which one of his drivers was exonerated by using a DriveCam recording , which has been ruled admissible in courts of law. "That one case," he said, "paid for all the cameras in every car we had. It can close cases very quickly--makes it cut and dry."

Because its video evidence can be useful in such litigation, DriveCam has received the endorsement of some major insurance agencies, some of which offer discounted premiums to companies that use the system in their fleets.

Better Highway Vision
DriveCam features an optional dual lens that faces back into the vehicle, affording an interior and often rear-window view, which Doherty said Empire elects not to use because of customer privacy issues. He added that all of Empire's vehicles contain a letter to customers explaining the DriveCam system and how the camera is incident-activated.

The camera has the ability to store 15 to 20 emailable "clips," or event recordings, in its permanent digital memory. Larger memory cards are available as an option, but according to Del Lisk, DriveCam's vice president of fleet safety services, average drivers typically log only between one-half and one clip per vehicle per day.

Lisk, who was president of Smith System from 1997 to 2003, teaches fleet managers how to maximize the HindSight 20/20 software and to incorporate it and the camera--together called the Driving Feedback System--into a formal driver training and safety program.

"No technological device is going to prevent accidents on its own," he said. "It's all up to the people, the facilitators of the system, to effectively analyze the video clips, to assign the right level of G-force sensitivity, to effectively counsel the driver and, when necessary, follow up properly. Used to their full capabilities, the system's tools will lead to reduced accidents and collisions and lower insurance losses."

Uncommonly Candid Camera
Lisk acknowledged many drivers are initially concerned about having a camera installed in their vehicles. Tom Elliott, fleet safety manager for San Diego's Cloud 9 Shuttle, said that in his experience the drivers soon get over it.

"Some drivers initially will resent the introduction of the camera because they feel that you are 'spying' on them," Elliott said. "Once they realize its true purpose--driver awareness and evidence collection--they are all for it. . . . Some of my drivers hunt me down to get their camera downloaded and reviewed as soon as an event is recorded."

C&H Taxi Technology Solutions Manager Jeb Corey of Charleston, W.Va., said drivers in his fleet have had a similar reaction. C&H Taxi began using the DriveCam system last October, primarily to ensure the safety of its drivers, he said, adding that while he doesn't yet have the statistics, he has definitely observed a decrease in at-fault incidents. He noted that in most claims involving taxis and other commercial fleets, the benefit of the doubt usually goes against the commercial fleet driver.

"If you're in an accident and the camera can prove you're not at fault, then it's priceless," Corey said. "I think the drivers do feel a lot safer now. Even those who were initially annoyed are now starting to like driving a vehicle that hasn't been dogged out, driven over curbs, and so forth. I'd say they're starting to appreciate it."

First marketed in 2000, DriveCam is now installed in about 12,000 commercial vehicles throughout the country and sells for about $1,000 per vehicle, with volume purchase discounts. The company has formed an exploratory staff and is currently examining business models for fitting the system to consumer markets, possibly by sometime next year.

This article originally appeared in the July 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Ronnie Rittenberry is Managing Editor of Occupational Health & Safety.

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