“Hands-free cell phone use was found to be protective as it likely helps drivers alleviate boredom, while hand-held cell phone use was found to be risky as it takes the driver’s attention away from driving tasks,” a new study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute stated.
This study found that truck drivers were at a much higher risk of crashing when engaging in distracting actions like adjusting their mirrors, reaching for a snack or beverage, or even adjusting their seat belts, although activities like singing or talking while driving were not found to be a distraction.
Additionally, as compared to past studies, the overall usage of cell phones in a trucker cab was found to have significantly decreased in recent “naturalistic” research focusing upon driver fatigue and distraction.
In fact, “the eighth driving hour showed the highest rate of safety-critical event occurrence,” noted VTTI’s study, which aimed to determine the overall effects of drowsiness and distracting actions on big-rig truck driver safety. The study collected data from 182 trucks, 172 truck drivers, 73 motor coach drivers, and 43 motor coaches across seven different fleets, 10 different locations, and 3.8 million driving miles.
A “significant critical event” in the study pertains to four distinct outcomes–unintentional lane deviation, crash-relevant conflict, a near-crash, or an actual collision
In previous studies, researchers found that around 25% to 30% of crashes came as primarily a result of driver distraction. In Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s new study, though, researchers determined that, due to their latest research methods, “it is commonly believed that the actual percentage of distracted-related crashes may be substantially higher.”
These updated ways of collecting more accurate data in more efficient ways has made all the difference in finding real safety issues in the trucking industry today, VTTI added.
“Naturalistic data collection and reduction has become the gold-standard method for investigating driver distraction as it allows researchers to see what a driver is doing just prior to a safety-critical event in real-world settings,” the institution said in its study.
Some of the study’s most vital findings include that truck drivers had a direct correlation between the time their eyes were taken off the road for at least two seconds and the amount of risk they had in being involved in a crash or near-crash; that the time of day and the length of a driver’s rest break may impact his or her overall driving behavior; that the time at which the driver begins a particular trip can have a particular effect on his or her fatigue; and that by diving deeper into the collected data regarding driver drowsiness, it was clear that fatigue levels are highest within systematic baselines between 1:00 A.M. and 6:00 A.M. for crashes or near-crashes in truck drivers who start their shifts in the early-morning hours and who have long trips starting at those times.
“Researchers, transportation officials, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration have all identified driver fatigue as a serious concern for vehicle safety and deemed it to be significantly associated with fatal commercial motor vehicle crashes,” said VTTI in the study. “Drivers have reported that they become fatigued from insufficient time spent recovering during off-duty times, work overload, not working according to their circadian [rhythms], disturbed sleep patterns, and the time sensitivity associated with the nature of their jobs.”
Other determinations made from the results of the study include that the first 10 driving hours for a trucker can be separated into: low significant critical event rate within the first hour, moderate significant critical event rate within the second hour, and high significant critical event rate within the third hour through the 10th hour; that most of the significant critical events took place in daylight when the driver was on a non-junction roadway, on a divided roadway, or in areas without many traffic jams (like an interstate), and while no adverse conditions were present; and that lower amounts of driver texting may show that individual carrier policies, public information campaigns, and local and national legislation changes regarding handheld cell phone use while driving have positively affected safe driver behavior changes throughout the industry.