Combating Driver Distraction, Fatigue

Onboard Cameras Help Fleets Prevent Safety Risks
Mix Telematics

This story appears in the March 14 print edition of iTECH, a supplement to Transport Topics.

Advances in technology are giving trucking companies increasingly sophisticated ways to combat distracted and drowsy driving — two of the biggest threats to fleet safety.

Various systems on the market utilize onboard cameras, sensors and analytics software to capture video of critical events, analyze driving behavior or even track drivers’ eye and head movements for signs of fatigue or distraction.

Fleets using video-safety systems from technology vendors such as Lytx and SmartDrive said they’ve seen a reduction in handheld phone use by drivers.

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“It’s just human nature. If you’re being watched, you’re going to behave differently,” said Royal Jones, president of Mesilla Valley Transportation, which has implemented onboard cameras from SmartDrive. “The presence of the camera affects the driver from the start. At first, we saw a lot of cellphone use, but it’s gone down. They’re getting a hands-free option.”

Cargo Transporters Inc., which operates out of Claremont, North Carolina, has been using Lytx’s DriveCam product since 2012.

“This technology has helped us reduce the use of handheld electronic devices by our drivers and increased the use of seat belts, because we use this as an opportunity to coach our drivers,” said Meredith Priestley, corporate counsel for the fleet.

These systems, which typically incorporate both forward-facing and driver-facing cameras mounted on the windshield of the cab, capture video during the seconds before and after trigger events such as speeding, hard braking or a crash.

Now, suppliers of these onboard camera systems are using the data they’ve collected to develop deeper analytics and expand their services.

In October, Lytx introduced an added service for its DriveCam customers called ActiveVision, which uses onboard sensors and analytics to identify signs that the driver is drowsy or distracted.

That service was made possible by extensive research into the characteristics of distracted driving.

“By analyzing a large pool of data — billions of miles driven — we’ve been able to identify certain patterns,” said Liz Eller, senior product marketing life cycle manager at Lytx.

Drivers who are texting exhibit specific driving habits.

“The first thing they tend to do is slow down,” Eller said. “The second thing they tend to do is swerve within their lane in an atypical pattern.”

This swerving within the lane can trigger an event, which means the system captures video and sends it for analytic review. “We’ve learned over time that if there’s a certain threshold of swerving, there’s probably something that needs more investigation at that point,” Eller said. “The review can determine what was going on.”

Lytx announced Feb. 18 that it agreed to be acquired by private equity firm GTCR for more than $500 million. The transaction was expected to close by the end of March.

Meanwhile, SmartDrive has been exploring similar avenues of analysis.

“In the last six months, we’ve been spending a lot of time reviewing collisions and near-collisions,” said CEO Steve Mitgang. “We have eight years of data collected from [engine control units] and active safety systems that tell us the engine load, throttle position and more, on top of the video captured by our cameras.”

The result is that SmartDrive is finding correlations between driving behavior and collisions. “We’ve discovered that there’s a correlation between particular types and frequency of swerves and a drowsy driver,” Mitgang said. “It’s a very high correlation.”

SmartDrive also recently launched its SmartIQ Transportation Intelligence Suite, a data analytics platform that links data about driver behavior to the multitude of data coming from various vehicle systems. The goal is to provide fleets with actionable information that helps improve safety as well as operational efficiency.

The risk of distracted driving has increased in recent years with the proliferation of smartphones.

A U.S. Department of Transportation- commissioned report from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute states that 5 seconds is the average time a person’s eyes are off the road while texting. At 55 miles per hour, driving for 5 seconds while texting equates to traveling the length of a football field without looking at the roadway.

In response to this danger, 46 states have enacted bans against text messaging while driving, and 14 states have banned all handheld cellphone use while driving.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration does not allow any handheld use of mobile devices while driving. Drivers can incur fines up to $2,750, and carriers that allow or require drivers to use handheld devices while driving can be fined up to $11,000.

Another technology provider, MiX Telematics, also offers a video-safety system designed to help fleets tackle this challenge.

The company’s system uses pre-defined triggers to capture video of certain behaviors, such as hard braking, speeding and harsh acceleration and corner handling.

“If an event is triggered, the driver is alerted and information is transmitted to our database,” said Pete Allen, executive vice president of sales at MiX Telematics Americas. “This way, we can see if the driver is on his cellphone or getting drowsy at the wheel.”

The system creates reports that categorize driver behavior into three bands: green, yellow and red. “If you have a red-band driver, you can drill into that driver’s profile and see what the problems are,” Allen said. “Are they harsh brakers? Are they tailgating a lot? Are they not handling corners well? Those could be indicators of distraction or fatigue, and it gives managers information on how to coach that driver to avoid those circumstances.”

However, as more and more drivers see cameras installed in their cabs, questions arise about the purpose and goals of the technology. Over and over again, the technology providers stress that their products are aimed at helping drivers, not making life worse for them.

That’s a key message from David Wehmeyer, mobile video and AVL solutions adviser at technology supplier Safety Vision, which uses cameras to monitor drivers’ faces for signs of fatigue or distracted driving.

“Some fleet managers get really upset when they see video of drivers eating or texting while driving, but the point of this product is not to get people fired,” he said. “We’re trying to correct their behavior. It’s a device to coach people. We want to help companies partner with their drivers so that they become safer drivers.”

Although Lytx and SmartDrive have different philosophies on driver notification of events, both companies are seeking to help drivers improve their safety.

“We have a visual indicator to let the driver know that a video event was captured,” said Eller of Lytx. “This is part of our goal of being transparent with the driver.”

SmartDrive’s Mitgang argued against letting the driver know each time an event is triggered.

“We have the capability of visually notifying the driver if an event has been triggered and video is being captured, but we don’t recommend that. We think that showing the driver a light teaches them how not to trigger a video,” he said, adding that the goal should be safer driving.

Meanwhile, the number of companies offering onboard camera systems is expanding. Telematics provider PeopleNet has introduced a video intelligence product aimed at providing liability protection and helping drivers better see their surroundings through cameras positioned around the vehicle. Omnitracs has also announced plans to launch its own onboard camera product that will integrate directly with its telematics systems.

The trucking industry’s methods of tackling distracted and drowsy driving are changing at a rapid pace. One day, this technology could make fatigued driving so rare that hours-of-service regulations become obsolete.

That day can’t come too soon for Jones of Mesilla Valley Transportation. He pointed out that the HOS rules fail to take into account the fatigue drivers may be experiencing before they even start logging hours and the fact that drivers are often forced to rest at times when they are fully awake and capable of driving safely for several more hours.

“With all the technology out there today, why can’t we have trucks that can sense that the driver is tired?” Jones asked. “If you’re too tired to work, the system’s going to sense that you’re tired and not allow you to work, thus making it safer for everyone worldwide. Every driver would want a camera that could detect fatigue if they knew that they could drive if they weren’t tired.”

MVT, based in Las Cruces, New Mexico, ranks No. 71 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in the United States and Canada.

Distraction and fatigue monitoring technology could eventually combine with autonomous driving capabilities, said David Nagy, senior vice president of product management at Seeing Machines, which offers a monitoring system that tracks the driver’s eye and head movements to detect fatigue.

A fatigued driving event could trigger a series of actions that safely stops the truck without driver intervention.

“Imagine an extreme case where the customer wants the truck to gradually slow down and pull over,” he said. “The technology is available today to allow us to connect to the cab bus and guide the truck to the side of the road and slow it down until it stops there.”