Back to Basics, Transportation

Back to Basics: Vehicle Fleet Safety

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine vehicle fleet safety.

Do you have an effective vehicle fleet safety management program?

How safe are the employees, including sales and service personnel, driving around in your company’s cars?

How confident are you in their driving skills?

Are they mostly conscientious drivers, or are they frequently distracted by mobile phones or other electronic devices?

How would you know?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has looked into and continues to research these kinds of questions.

The hazards of motor vehicle safety and the resulting costs are real. Consider NIOSH’s description of work-related crashes, which include workers on foot (such as law enforcement officers and road construction crews), struck by a vehicle, and single- or multi-vehicle crashes:

  • Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of work-related deaths in the United States.
  • From 2011–2020, more than 17,000 workers in the United States died in a work-related motor vehicle crash.
  • In 2019 alone, work-related crashes cost American employers $39 billion—an average of $75,000 per nonfatal injury and $751,000 per death.

Air, highway, and rail transportation incidents have remained the most frequent type of fatal workplace event, accounting for 1,982 fatal injuries in 2021—an increase of 11.5 percent from 2020, according to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those fatalities included 337 pedestrian incidents, 649 collisions between vehicles, and 319 vehicle collisions with other objects.

OSHA guidance, NTSB criticism

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has employer guidance on motor vehicle safety, including “Guidelines for Employers to Reduce Motor Vehicle Crashes,” developed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS), as well as a “Safe Driving Practices for Employees” Quick Card.

However, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) believes OSHA should do more to address motor vehicle crashes caused by distracted driving. Specifically, the board has a pair of open recommendations for OSHA:

  • Review the agency’s distracted driving initiatives to increase employers’ awareness of the need to develop strong cellphone policies prohibiting the use of portable electronic devices while driving.
  • Modify the agency’s enforcement strategies to increase the use of the General Duty Clause (§5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act) against employers that fail to address the hazards of distracted driving.

The NTSB specifically recommended that OSHA review and revise its “Guidelines for Employers to Reduce Motor Vehicle Crashes” to encourage employers to develop strong policies prohibiting the use of portable mobile phones and electronic devices while driving company-owned vehicles.

The NTSB made its recommendations after investigating a fatal March 23, 2018, crash of an Apple, Inc., company car, a Tesla Model X, in Mountain View, California, in which the driver was distracted by a mobile phone. The board had recommendations for Apple, as well as OSHA’s employer guidance and outreach and the agency’s enforcement policy.

The NTSB’s investigation found that:

  • The driver died from multiple blunt-force injuries after his SUV entered the area between U.S. Route 101 and the State Route 85 exit ramp and struck a damaged and nonoperational crash cushion at 70.8 miles per hour.
  • The SUV was struck by two other vehicles, resulting in the injury of another person.
  • The SUV’s high-voltage battery was damaged in the collision and burst into flames, engulfing the car and endangering first responders.

The driver may have been distracted by a gaming application on his mobile phone before the crash, according to board investigators. In the aftermath, the board recommended that Apple establish and implement a company policy banning the use of portable electronic devices while driving company vehicles, including those used for work-related communications.

Eliminating distracted driving remains one of the board’s “Most Wanted” transportation safety improvements.

NETS resources

The NETS is a membership organization that also offers a variety of free resources for nonmembers, including a monthly newsletter, an employer’s “Managing Fatigue for the Fleet Safety Professional” guide, and an updated “Cost of Motor Vehicle Crashes to Employers.”

 The NETS compiled a set of recommended practices for fleet vehicle safety programs in its “NETS’ Comprehensive Guide to Road Safety” that include:

  • Employer fleet safety policies;
  • Training programs, including the “Commentary Drive” process (sitting in the front passenger seat and observing the driver’s skills);
  • High-risk driver identification and intervention;
  • Collision review process;
  • Use of in-vehicle monitoring systems (IVMSs) and safety technology supplied by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM);
  • Authorized driver process (spouse/domestic partner/dependent/contractors);
  • Metrics (such as percentage of the fleet in a collision, most common collision types, and scorecard by vehicle type and geographic location);
  • Mobile phone and other electronic device policy;
  • Senior management engagement; and
  • Administrative controls (such as limits on hours driven per day or consecutively in a week and mandatory rest breaks).

Ongoing NIOSH research

NIOSH continues to research motor vehicle safety. Nearly 2 years ago, the institute released its 2020–2029 strategic plan for its Center for Motor Vehicle Safety (CMVS), prioritizing research into job-related motor vehicle safety in four industries: oil and gas extraction; public safety; transportation, warehousing, and utilities; and wholesale and retail trade. The center’s research also focuses on drivers in high-risk jobs, such as emergency medical services (EMS) workers, firefighters, and law enforcement officers, as well as drivers of light vehicles (passenger cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks).

The center is looking into some of the most basic safety interventions. For example, the CMVS wants to identify barriers to seatbelt use in the oil and gas extraction industry and determine what factors influence workers’ decisions about seatbelt use. The center also wants to identify differences in workers’ safety decisions across all industries when driving on and off the job and explore workers’ rationales for different approaches to on- and off-duty driving.

Moreover, the center plans additional research into drivers’ understanding and use of advanced driver assistance systems (ADASs) and automated driving systems (ADSs) in fleet vehicles across a number of industries.

Additionally, the center is researching fatigue risk management systems (FRMSs), looking into:

  • The use of FRMSs and other strategies in small businesses and well-servicing companies, including fatigue-detection technologies to reduce fatigue and fatigue-related crashes and injuries among employees;
  • The use of FRMSs and other strategies for law enforcement officers;
  • The effectiveness of fatigue management strategies between shifts, such as napping and rest breaks, on fatigue- and crash-related injury risk for EMS workers; and
  • Developing and evaluating FRMSs and other strategies to address fatigue and sleep disorders associated with crashes and crash-related injury risks among truck drivers employed by small carriers (those with 10 or fewer trucks).

NIOSH research has already shown that corporate fleet safety management practices like driver training, fatigue risk management, IVMSs, and strong mobile phone policies can reduce the number and severity of motor vehicle crashes.

The institute initiated research that looked at data from 70 companies with almost 333,000 vehicles ranging from passenger cars to tractor-trailers in a variety of industries, examining almost 5.5 billion vehicle miles driven. The researchers found that companies fared better with policies on checking mobile phone records after all collisions and prohibiting the use of all electronic devices while driving, including the use of hands-free phones.

According to NIOSH’s findings, effective corporate fleet safety measures that reduced the number and severity of motor vehicle crashes—measures similar to the NETS’s recommended practices—included:

  • Fatigue risk management for light-vehicle drivers—safety practices such as fatigue awareness training, restrictions on night driving, and medical screenings for fatigue.
  • Managers’ commitment to fleet safety. The companies that publicized that their top executives were committed to fleet safety and their field managers managed road safety well had greater success.
  • Determining crash severity as part of collision reviews, conducting in-depth reviews of all collisions, and determining the severity of the collisions to identify issues that need to be remedied across a company’s fleet.
  • Using an IVMS, equipping vehicles with video cameras, coaching drivers by using video footage, and summarizing IVMS results for upper management.
  • Driver training, using a range of driver training methods, such as behind-the-wheel and classroom training; training all employees (not just those classified as motor vehicle operators); and paying particular attention to high-risk drivers.

NIOSH’s motor vehicle safety research and resources touch on a number of topics, such as distracted driving at work, driver fatigue on the job, older drivers, and younger drivers. NIOSH research and resources also encompass EMS worker safety, highway traffic zone safety, law enforcement officer motor vehicle safety, and fatal incidents in the oil and gas extraction industry.

While older workers bring extensive driving skills, knowledge, and experience built over the course of a life span, age-related physical and mental changes may affect their driving. However, NIOSH recommends restricting older drivers based on an assessment of their actual driving ability rather than general health status or an arbitrary age limit.

Younger workers aged 16 to 24 are still developing their driving skills and gaining experience, so they may be less likely than older drivers to recognize and respond to traffic hazards.

Setting up your own program

NIOSH research, along with recommendations from the NETS and the NTSB, offers clues to an effective fleet vehicle safety management program for your company cars. Safety practices could include:

  • Establishing and maintaining a management commitment to reduce motor vehicle crashes as much as possible;
  • Implementing employee driving and mobile device use policies that reflect that commitment;
  • Establishing and maintaining a fatigue risk management program that might include medical screening (for health conditions or prescription drug use with fatigue risks), restrictions on lengthy drives or night driving, and fatigue awareness training; 
  • Monitoring employee driving skills through commentary drives and/or IVMSs;
  • Gathering crash and driving safety data that could inform vehicle fleet safety policies and practices;
  • Training for all employees who use company cars (not just employees in driving occupations); and
  • Identifying high-risk drivers and providing training or retraining when necessary.

Even if OSHA’s enforcement is weak, as the NTSB claims, the costs of motor vehicle crashes are real, so protect your bottom line with a comprehensive company vehicle fleet safety management program.

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