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April 26, 2012 9:10 AM, EDT
iTECH: Cameras Keep an Eye on Drivers
In-Cab Monitoring Can Bolster Safety Programs, Fleet Managers Say
By Stephen Bennett. Contributing Writer

This article appears in the April/May 2012 issue of iTECH, published in the April 9 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

In this age of distracted driving and new federal rules, fleet operators face a heightened challenge: How can they know and control what is happening in the cabs of their trucks? Ignorance could be expensive and dangerous.

Commercial vehicle drivers and fleet operators who fail to comply with the recent federal ban on the use of handheld phones, issued in November by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, can be fined. Moreover, the National Transportation Safety Board called in December for a broader ban, applying to all drivers, on “nonemergency use of personal electronic devices,” other than those meant to support driving.

Distracted drivers also present a safety hazard on the road.

Managers of some light- and medium-duty truck fleets that have been using driver monitoring systems in an effort to operate more safely said they are looking to the technology to help them comply with the ban on handheld phones.

Driver monitoring technology can help a manager identify unsafe driving practices that need correcting.

Hard braking, sudden acceleration and sharp turning are actions that driver monitoring technology is designed to detect and record. The information then can be used for remedial training, fleet managers and vendors of monitoring systems said. The goal is to reinforce safe driving practices and reduce the number of accidents and the costs associated with them.

DS Waters of America Inc., Atlanta, a water and beverage delivery company, runs a fleet that includes about 1,670 delivery trucks fitted with monitoring units by DriveCam, San Diego.

The fleet has been using the system for more than five years, and Michael Belcher, safety director for DS Waters, said that it helped reduce the fleet’s automotive liability costs by 40% over a 24-month period. DS Waters ranks No. 65 on the Light & Medium Truck 2011 Top 100 Commercial Fleets.

The monitoring system is one component of a complete safety program that includes training and a driver qualification system, Belcher said.

“They all have to work in harmony. It’s not fair to think you can go out and buy DriveCam and it’s going to solve all your problems,” he said.

Belcher credits the monitoring system as a powerful teaching tool and source of information that he and other managers could not access before.

“It keeps people honest,” he said. “Before we had the video, we really had no way of knowing” what had happened in an accident, and conflicting accounts would be difficult, if not impossible, to resolve.

DS Waters’ units combine the Global Positioning System, sensors, accelerometers and video cameras to track and record a wide range of driving maneuvers. For example, if a driver accelerates to make a sharp left turn through a yellow light and the maneuver exceeds a gravitational-force setting, a video recording is triggered, said Rob Bartels, vice president of product management for DriveCam. The company analyzes the videos and provides the results to fleet management.

“The system is built to create a coachable moment,” Bartels said.

Quarles Petroleum Inc., Fredericksburg, Va., installed monitoring technology by SmartDrive Systems Inc., San Diego, more than a year ago on 90 vehicles, including 50 fuel oil delivery trucks and 25 petroleum tankers. The system collects data from a truck’s electronic control module and records in-cab and on-road video of hard braking, hard turning and the like, said Joe Pennesi, Quarles’ safety director. A light in the cab alerts the driver when an event has been sensed, providing immediate feedback.

“It’s had a huge impact” on compliance with the company’s safety policy, Pennesi said of the technology. “It’s changing driver behavior.”

Company policy requires hands-free, voice-activated calling. As a result, the use of handhelds dropped 94% during the first three months that the cameras were in the trucks, Pennesi said.

“The cameras help us enforce that,” he said.

The cameras also documented that seat-belt use increased 92% in the 11 months or so after the systems were installed.

Citing percentage improvements is possible, Pennesi said, because the SmartDrive systems were installed initially on 20 trucks and were used for three or four months to get a baseline reading of drivers’ current compliance.

Then drivers were told that the company was going to look for improvements in specific in-cab behaviors, including compliance with policies on handheld phones and use of seat belts. The changes occurred over the next eight months, Pennesi said.

The SmartDrive cameras were installed at the end of 2010, a year in which the Quarles Petroleum fleet had 10 DOT recordable crashes, five of them judged preventable by the company’s safety committee, he said.

“This year, we’ve had two DOT reportable crashes,” Pennesi said in early November.

Quarles Petroleum paid about $500 per truck for the equipment and installation and about $400 per year per truck for monitoring, Pennesi said.

“We’re starting to realize some payback,” he said, in terms of eliminating more risky behaviors. However, he said, a clear understanding of the payback will require three years of data.

Drivers’ concerns about being watched faded as they became accustomed to the system, Pennesi said. “Probably 50% would have preferred that the cameras weren’t in the vehicle.” Virtually all of them since then have reversed their opinions, he said, as they see how the system can help document the details of an event.

Some drivers can be apprehensive about having a camera in the vehicle, said Belcher, of DS Waters.

“But if you take the time to explain its purpose and its benefits upfront, the concerns are minimized,” he said. “After a few weeks, the event recorders just become second nature, and they aren’t given much thought.”

Drivers appreciate that video can exonerate them if an accident wasn’t their fault, Belcher added.

“Many drivers also admit, sometimes reluctantly, that they are becoming safer operators,” he said.

Stephen Bennett is a freelance writer based in New Milford, Conn.