Coffee, conversation can lead to incidents on the road

Have you or your workers ever been distracted behind the wheel? It has happened to all of us and I would suggest it occurs every day, to varying degrees, depending on what is going on in our lives. Employers need to be aware of the distracted driving risks their workers face not just to make sure their workers are safe, but also because companies can be held liable if an accident occurs.

As of 2013, most provinces in Canada have reported that distracted driving is the number 1 contributing factor for injuries and fatalities in motor vehicle crashes. Distraction has always been a factor in motor vehicle crashes but with today’s technology, it has become a major factor.

Distracted driving is anything that takes our mind away from the task of driving or our eyes off the road. Knowing and understanding the definition of distracted driving and how the mind works during the driving process is the first step in creating an awareness of the risk (phase 1 of the behavioural change model). The first step is to determine the causes of distraction for individual workers. Remember, it is anything: a conversation, thinking non-driving thoughts, eating, drinking a cup of coffee, managing an un-kennelled/unsecured animal, changing a CD, radio or navigation system and using other vehicle controls, to name a few. If the task takes a worker’s mind away from driving or his eyes off the road, it has the potential to cause an incident.

Driving an automobile is a very complex task. Experienced drivers find driving to be very easy and as a result they can easily become complacent, which can lead to a decrease in hazard perception. Many of us like to think that we can multi-task and as long as the two tasks are non-complex, we are able to perform them. However, it has been shown with numerous studies that the mind cannot multi-task when the tasks are complex, such as driving and having a meaningful conversation. The brain actually wants to toggle (on-off) tasks and will focus on one or the other. Most provinces are finding that hands-free legislation is not solving the problem and, in some jurisdictions, the collision rate has actually gone up.

Why is distraction such a problem? Well, if you consider that at 100 km/h, the vehicle is travelling almost 28 metres per second, it can cover the length of a football field (including both end zones) in just four seconds. It does not take much to divert our eyes off the road for four or more seconds. The brain needs time to perceive and react to hazards. The delay is further increased when our eyes are already off the road. Ninety per cent of driving is visual — knowing where to look, when to look and what to look for are the key components of hazard recognition.

Individuals who are supporters of the use of cellphones, VHF and CB radios (common tools in the oil and gas industry) often engage in debate about the difference between a conversation on the phone or radio (hands free) and a conversation with another passenger. A conversation with someone inside or outside of the vehicle can be a distraction under any circumstances, as it still takes the driver’s mind off the task of driving. Does this mean we should not have conversations with our passengers? No. The biggest difference between the two is that the people within the vehicle have the ability to react as the dynamics of the surroundings change and they are seeing what the driver is seeing. They will know when to pause the conversation or when to avoid talking. They are also another set of eyes to watch for potential hazards. A worker’s conversation with a fellow employee on the phone or the dispatcher on the radio is totally different, as they are not aware of the moment when the driving surroundings require extra observation or scanning skills and, as a result, would not know to pause or stop the conversation.

My favourite example of how we deal with a common potential for distracted driving is when we get into our vehicle with a hot cup of coffee. The cup is relatively full and hot so we place it in our cup holder and start the drive. Because of the risk (spilling the hot coffee in our lap) we plan when to have those first sips in order to lower the risk of spilling. We can reach our cup without looking, we survey the road for any hazards that may cause us to spill during the sipping process, such as bumps, bridge decks, potholes and changes in traffic, and adjust accordingly. Our focus reduces as the cup of coffee is reduced in volume with less risk of spilling. This is exactly how we should deal with all distractions. We should increase our visual focus and specifically plan for when we want to do something that may divert our attention from driving, such as changing the radio station, CD or playlist.

So how do you reduce the risk among your workforce? Train workers to prepare their driving compartments before they begin driving. Ensure they are familiar with the vehicle and locate all of the controls before they start driving. This should be part of the pre-trip procedure. It’s also important for workers to eliminate as many potential distractions as possible: they should put electronic devices out of reach — preferably in the trunk — pre-set radio stations, load CDs ahead of time and input their destination on the navigation system.

Now the most important part. Encourage workers to be focused on the drive and pay attention. Drive as an art not as an act. There will be times during the drive when the worker will be more focused than others, such as urban driving and intersections versus multi-lane highway driving with less potential for vehicle interaction.

Health and safety managers should continually remind their workforce that driving is a very complex task and they cannot let themselves become complacent, because complacency is a very common contributing factor in oil and gas-related incidents.

Grant Aune is the president and CEO of Advantage Fleet Services, headquartered in Chilliwack, B.C. For more information, visit or call 1-(866)-433-2374.