Technology has a vital role to play in driver safety, but it can’t be at the expense of human factors.
Complacency about new driver technology can be dangerous. In Canada, police stopped a self-driving Tesla with driver and passenger asleep and fully reclined while speeding at 90mph. And three years ago, the driver of a camper van in the UK switched on cruise control to go into the back and make a cup of tea. The van was written off after crashing.
Drivers need to remain vigilant. As Simon Turner, campaign manager for Driving for Better Business, says: ‘With the National Lottery, everybody thinks it might be them. When it comes to injury collisions, no one does. Yet the odds of winning the jackpot are one in 45 million. The odds of having an injury collision while driving for work are one in 500.’
The Department for Transport’s provisional figures for 2019 show that 1748 people were killed on the roads in Great Britain last year, a figure that has remained relatively unchanged – despite improvements in technology – since 2012, when 1754 people were killed.
It’s a significant challenge for businesses, as around a third of fatal collisions involve someone driving for work. ‘Often, it’s companies with a strong health and safety culture in every other aspect of their business,’ says Dominic Saunders, CEO of Brightmile, an app that manages real-time driver safety. ‘But they might have hundreds of people on the road with little understanding of the risks they’re taking. It’s a blind spot in terms of company liability.’
'Ultimately, we need to teach people about how the technology within cars works'
Can technology help?
Within car fleets, there are distinct technological trends, says Simon. The first is for digital management systems to store driver and vehicle details, track fleet activity, store policies and check licences. ‘They also help to reduce costs,’ he says. ‘Most businesses view maintenance costs, tyres, fuel use and fleet insurance as the cost of doing business. They don’t realise they are directly affected by driver behaviour, and these systems help you spot trends.’
A second trend is for telematics and camera systems that tell employers where their vehicles are and what they’re doing. ‘One of the pitfalls is that these systems spit out so much data you can get bogged down,’ he says. ‘However, telematics can protect drivers from spurious crash claims, and when a collision might appear 50/50 in terms of responsibility without video evidence.’
The third trend is around safer vehicles and collision avoidance technology. ‘Emergency braking systems, for example, can detect when a collision is imminent and apply the brakes if you don’t react,’ says Simon. ‘They’ve been shown to reduce rear-end shunts at lower speeds by 38%.’
However, all this technology does have its drawbacks. Andrew Morris, professor of human factors in transport safety at Loughborough University, has published more than 250 referred technical papers on accident research, road crash injury, accident causation and driver behaviour.
He argues that we’re reaching the stage at which the only people who understand all the safety systems in cars are the engineers who designed the vehicle.
‘Ultimately, we need to teach people about how the technology within cars works. I’d like to see more information given out so that everybody understands what vehicles can do and what they can’t do.’
This even extends to the basics. Research from insurer Direct Line found that almost a third of those who died in vehicles on Britain’s roads in 2018 were not wearing a seat belt.
Influencing driver behaviour
One increasingly popular tech solution is to monitor driver behaviour and influence it through apps such as Brightmile and Lightfoot. Drivers can see their performance over time, and tips are provided to reduce risk events such as aggressive braking and cornering too quickly.
Andrew gives them a cautious welcome. ‘They have a purpose and they do work. However, there is the risk that people will lapse. In our study, we found there was quite a good response to the systems initially. You get very good conformity to the rules while the coaching systems are in operation, but if you don’t maintain it and incentivise it, drivers can slip into bad habits.’
Martin Kadhim, partnerships director at Lightfoot, says: ‘It’s only when a driver wants to be better and has a vested interest in doing that that you have any certainty of actual change. Achieve that, and you instantly increase safety on the road.’
Dominic at Brightmile explains how engagement works. ‘We use a variety of gamification techniques. We look to learn from other industries, especially personal fitness and the likes of Strava and Fitbit. We try to include a broad range of incentives, from self-competition to competition with peers, and both financial and altruistic incentives.
‘You can track your performance clearly and compete against fellow drivers. We have a points-based reward system based on every safe mile you drive. They accumulate over time, like air miles, and can be used to win prizes or donate to charity.’
Does it work? ‘We don’t get to see what driving behaviour was like before Brightmile was introduced,’ says Dominic, ‘so our main metric is “before” and “after” collision rates. Across the board, we’ve seen a frequency of collision reduction of 25% to 35%.’
Driver Danger: Tackling Diabetes Safety Charter
Around 4.6 million people in the UK have diabetes, with 700 people diagnosed each day. It can cause people to black out or act as if they are drunk if the condition is not managed correctly – a potential catastrophe behind the wheel. In a bid to increase awareness and ensure greater safety around diabetes in the workplace, IOSH has signed the Diabetes Safety Organisation’s Tackling Diabetes Safety Charter.
What needs to happen?
‘The road environment has changed because of COVID-19,’ says Simon. ‘Many of those who previously commuted by train are now on two wheels. There are more vans because of the increase in online shopping. And if you have more vulnerable road users and inexperienced people in big vehicles with visibility restrictions, it’s vital that everybody is more careful.’
Gary Bates, product marketing manager (business) at IAM RoadSmart, also highlights the grey fleet – employee-owned vehicles used for business. ‘With our increased reliance on home delivery, there are a lot of freelance drivers out there. Nobody is really sure who is responsible for managing the risk posed by those drivers, or the risk posed to them. There’s nothing to say they can only do a certain number of deliveries – they will take on as much work as they want to.’
One thing that would help is more data from a variety of different providers that could be compared over a period of time. ‘We’d like to see a major vehicle fleet that uses telematics – and does it well – to provide data on it,’ says Gary.
There’s also a word of warning from Simon on mental health: ‘With an uncertain economic outlook, there
are many companies that may struggle through the next few months. Plus, with the furlough scheme ending, we could see a significant number of redundancies. My worry is that the poor mental health of some drivers could lead to poor decision-making in vehicles. Sensitive management is going to be critical.’
As for technology, innovations in virtual and augmented reality are imminent. Simon says: ‘A driving simulator provider recently told us about headsets that allow you to train in very particular scenarios, such as reversing a van.
‘You get a repeatability of certain scenarios that are independent of weather conditions and the like. These systems might aid training when a suitable vehicle is unavailable and, of course, there’s no risk of actually hitting anything.’
Future leader: James MacPherson
Don’t let technology drive us to distraction
Technology can make driving safer, but we suffer at times from a learned helplessness. Our cars tell us if we are too close to the one in front, if a passenger doesn’t have a seat belt on and when to check the engine condition. When you get in your car, you switch off to some extent, and the danger is that new safety technology will exacerbate that as we move to autonomous vehicles.
My experience suggests that all too often as safety professionals, we overlook the human side of things. Instead, we ‘do safety’ to people. There’s so much technology in driver safety now that we’re increasingly close to not needing to drive at all and that brings its own challenges.
What I like about apps such as Brightmile is that they bring any risks you take to your attention and incentivise a change in behaviour. Some might think it’s a bit of a gimmick, but it removes the ‘Big Brother’ aspect of telematics and gives employees a degree of control.
There’s obviously a business aspect to this, and we can reduce our overheads if people drive more safely, but our main priority has to be keeping people safe. Car safety technology, therefore, has to fit around drivers and complement them – and that’s why engaging with them is vital.
IOSH Future Leader James MacPherson is health, safety and environment manager for the Glass and Glazing Federation. He runs the Rebranding Safety podcast and YouTube channel