Driving distracted

10/18/2009 -

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a training program that focused on drivers of commercial vehicles driving distracted. The program that I was involved in was based on a recent 100 car “naturalistic driving study” that was conducted by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA).

A naturalistic study observes drivers with multiple video cameras located both inside and outside the vehicle over a long period of time. Most drivers, when observed for short periods of time, will be on their best behavior. However, when the cameras become a normal part of the driver’s natural environment, most drivers lapse into their normal driving habits.


For the purposes of this study, 241 drivers were observed for a period of one year. This equated to about two million miles of travel with about 43,000 hours of data that was gathered. During this study, 82 crashes were recorded that provided data that could be used for the study. Of those accidents 78 percent were preceded by driver inattention to the critical tasks of driving.

From this study, two new key understandings of preaccident information was learned. First, driver inattention to the forward roadway was noted as a key concern and secondly, non-specific eye glances away from the forward roadway were also a concern. It was determined that any glance or attention greater than two seconds away from the forward roadway was dangerous and increased the driver’s chance of being involved in a collision.

The definition of driver distraction is a diversion of attention away from activities critical for safe driving towards a competing activity. It is that definition that caused me to begin to think about drivers of emergency vehicles such as fire apparatus, EMS rigs, and chief’s vehicles and to go one step farther, even law enforcement vehicles. Talk about driving distracted. The more I came to learn about this concern the more I found that we in emergency services are almost always driving distracted. The two key phrases in the definition of driver distraction that really “drive” this concern home for me is “activities critical for safe driving” and “competing activities.”

Drivers of emergency vehicles must clearly know what the activities critical for safe driving are and must also be able to recognize what types of competing activities might exist in their driving environment and be able to properly manage those competing activities. Or, at the very least, keep them in check while operating their apparatus or other emergency vehicle. What are the activities that are critical for safe driving both responding and returning? Basics of defensive driving programs can serve as a basis for a series of articles all on their own, however, for the main purposes of this article I will say that being able to recognize the hazard, understand the defense and act in time to avoid an accident are primary. While you are driving your emergency vehicle in either emergency or non emergency mode you should be alert to your surroundings enough, that you:

  • Have the time to see the unexpected movement of a pedestrian, auto or other hazard.
  • Have time to process what your defense is going to be.
  • Have the time and space to execute the defense to prevent your vehicle and crew from being involved in an accident.

When drivers are focusing on other tasks or looking away from the forward roadway, the above mentioned key defensive driving techniques breakdown.

For example, if you look back for just a few seconds to talk with your crew seated in the rear of your rig, you are taking critical time away from focusing your attention on the forward roadway. If a motorist has suddenly stopped while you were glancing back at your crew in conversation you have lost valuable time to “recognize the hazard.” As you re-focus your attention back to the forward roadway you finally, and unexpectedly, see the hazard, but this recognition of the hazard come in an abrupt almost panicked mode. Your time to understand the defense is drastically reduced. As you take the split seconds that you have to analyze the data being thrust at you such as, “can I turn into a ditch,” “is there a telephone pole there I will hit,” “can I simply stop” -- BAM, you have already hit the car and ultimately not had time to “act in time” to prevent the accident. All because you took more than a two second glance to the rear of your rig to chat with your crew.

What are the competing activities that are constantly vying for your attention while you operate your rig?

There are literally thousands and they can differ from inside and outside your apparatus. Inside your rig you have your crew. Conversation should be kept to a minimum when you are driving. The crew needs to understand that the role of apparatus operator is a serious and potentially dangerous job, just like tit is for them when they exit your rig and advance the hose line through the front door.

Two-way radios and other electronics also regularly draw your attention. It is best, whenever possible, to have the firefighter in the officer’s seat manage as many of the non-driving related tasks as possible. Trying to read maps or other route information such as run cards or an apartment complex map is also an extreme draw on the driver’s attention. Have the officer call out directions in a clear, direct and audible way or invest in some of the modern voice command GPS units that are available to keep your eyes off a map and on the road.

Most importantly make every effort to memorize the locations of the various controls, gauges and switches and how to operate them on your rig. You should be able to operate rig accessories such as heaters/defrosters, lights and wipers without looking away from the road to find them. I remember one rainy night, rolling out of our main station in one of our rigs watching the driver literally fumble around in the dark, looking away from the road to find the wipers, while pressing the accelerator and the “Q” at the same time. It was like taking a ride with Mr. McGoo, (if you are younger than 30 search “Mr. McGoo” on the web to find out who he is) very scary!

If you are a driver trainer, a great way to test your drivers is to draw a basic chart of your rig’s dashboard and steering area and ask your new driver/operators to draw the location of all of the controls from memory. That is a good teaching tool.

Distractions outside your apparatus include things like unnecessary signs that are unrelated to driving such as the huge amount of commercial advertising that constantly bombards us. You run the same routes every day and you do not have to read the “buy one get one free” bagel sign posted in the deli window every time you go by. Ignore it and focus on the roadway. Auto dealerships are another big distraction, especially when they have the latest Benz or Camaro parked on the ramp out front with the string of flags begging for your attention. Focus on the road ahead. The list of distractions outside your rig can go on and on but you get the picture, actually the bigger picture, which should be the roadway in front of you.

The bottom line -- if you want your rig and crew to “arrive alive” and insure “everybody goes home,” do your best to remove as many distractions as possible while driving your apparatus. Focus on the road ahead and using very short glances, no more than two seconds back and forth and side to side to insure you have a cushion of space and time to see and react to potential hazards. This will help you to achieve your goal.

Reach Michael Dallessandro at [email protected], or visit www.respondsmart.com.
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