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A Hands-Free Mindset

By Tom Nunlist, Associate Editor

This month in Heavy Duty Trucking magazine, I explained how carriers can comply with forthcoming hands-free-only regulations on mobile devices. In short, the options out there are both varied and familiar – companies and drivers should have few problems implementing policies and purchasing hardware, should that be necessary.

Regulations on cell phone use in commercial vehicles have come up relatively quickly. After talking to many fleet managers and trucking CEOs, I’m impressed with the amount of vocal support anti-mobile policies are getting on the ground. Last year’s ban on texting is supported unconditionally by everyone I have talked with, and, as I mentioned in the article, many fleets are ahead of the curve when it comes to restricting mobile in-cab mobile use.

But in the course of my reporting, I’ve noticed something else, too.

When discussing the issue, it’s amusing how frank everyone is about cell phone use behind the wheel, from drivers right on up to CEOs. Everyone I’ve talked with sheepishly admits to having indulged, frequently, in this bad behavior despite strongly supporting policies against it. It sounds something like this: ‘Well, yeaaaaah, I do it…” You can picture the grin if you haven’t made it yourself. (Disclosure: I’m as guilty as the next guy.)

The irony here is that, according to the University of Utah, driving while using a cell phone delays a driver’s reactions as much as a martini. You don’t see a lot of hand-raising for that one – drinking and driving is seriously taboo in addition to being seriously illegal.

So, I’m not exactly sure how to interpret the laid-back attitude. Could it be that admission is the first step to recovery? I doubt it. I think it’s more likely that we’re verbally acknowledging the risk, but not really taking it to heart, or pretending that it’s not all that risky.

The reality is, when the phone rings in the car, doing a 360º hazard check for cars and pedestrians before checking the caller ID probably doesn’t make the practice much safer. But when you’ve done it a few dozen times already…

As I said, the policies of an increasing number of fleets are no-hands, or in some cases even zero tolerance. That’s a good thing – drivers need to be focused on driving. However, it seems to me that incongruity between official stance and personal attitudes damages the effort. Should a driver feel inclined to police himself when the prevailing atmosphere is one of exception-making?

Compounding this problem is the sheer difficulty of enforcement. I won’t name names, but trucking executives have been open to me about this issue. How do you really know if a driver is behaving responsibly? There are emerging technologies that can link a driver’s cell phone to other instruments in the cab, or use GPS to sense motion, and shut down a phone. Phones are cheap, though, it’s easy to have a backup.

Other services allow companies to track a driver’s phone use and match it to truck data, say, a crash event. But this requires the driver’s permission. Will drivers do that? According to a spokesman for a technology company: Hell, no.

When the hands-free rule does finally become effective, these enforcement problems are not likely to go away. But I think there’s hope.

Most fleets I’ve talked with about distracted driving noted the success of the texting ban. Texting behind the wheel is downright reckless, and drivers for the most part fully recognize this. Yet just a few years ago, the opposition wasn’t so extreme, although the dangers were intuitive.

The change was big, and as result, people are starting to abstain from the behavior. It still happens of course, but similar to driving under the influence, it’s a faux pas to admit it – and you likely feel bad about doing it.

Moving forward with hands-free, perhaps a similar attitude adjustment is the key to success. What might provoke such an adjustment, though, I’m not sure.

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