Technology Enables HVAC Contractors to Crack Down on Distracted Driving
The advent of smartphones has made life both simpler and more complicated for people around the world. Information is now readily available with just a push of a button on these hand-held computers. However, in this age of instant gratification, people have also become somewhat addicted to their cellular devices, even when they should be focusing on other important tasks, such as driving.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines distracted driving as any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting, eating and drinking, and even fiddling with the radio or navigation system. In 2015, 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers, per the NHTSA. Additionally, the agency reported that during daylight hours, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cellphones while driving. This presents an enormous risk for accidents and injuries, especially for service companies, like HVAC contractors, whose employees spend much of their time on the road traveling to and from job sites.
LIABILITY AND LOSS OF WORK
Lorton, Virginia-based Trademasters Service Corp. features a company policy banning the use of cellphones while driving. The company also outfitted its fleet with cameras.
“We did it [added cameras] because we want to be better drivers,” said Dave Kyle, president, Trademasters. “We’re in a major metro area — the Washington, D.C., metro area — and the traffic is really bad, and things can get a little nutty. It also helps protect our drivers from other bad drivers. There might be a distracted driver that weaves into their lane. This helps protect my drivers, their licenses, reputations, and everything else. But also, maybe subconsciously, it has them trying to focus a little more on our culture of ‘it can wait.’ There’s no reason to be messing with devices while you’re driving — you need to be driving.”
Trademasters has endeavored to establish a top-down culture that prohibits distracted driving. The company also covers the issue in its regular Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)-compliant training. According to Kyle, he is also frank when talking to employees about the cost to insure a business like Trademasters.
“To bring it home, we ask, ‘Who here would prefer a better base wage? Raise your hand,’” he explained. “And of course, all the hands go up. Then we ask, ‘Or, who would prefer to give all the money to the insurance company?’ Nobody raises their hands. Our insurance rates are based on our performance as good drivers and other factors as well. We also point out that they’re saving at home because an accident will cost them on their personal insurance as well. It’s a no-win situation. We’ve been talking about it more, and our cameras go to show our commitment to those things.”
Distracted driving could also have a detrimental impact on a contractor’s ability to win jobs in the form of its worker’s compensation modification number (Mod), Kyle noted. Insurance companies look at everybody in the industry and come up with a modification number. Most worker’s compensation rates are set by states. So that rate can be modified up or down based on a company’s history and experience with accidents and injuries.
“If you were to open a business today, your Mod would theoretically be 1.0 because you haven’t had any accidents or lawsuits,” Kyle explained. “Our Mod is significantly less than 1.0, which means in every dollar of worker’s compensation the state can charge us, they charge us the multiplier of less. If the guy down the street from me has a Mod of 1.1, he’s paying 10 percent more. Whereas, if I have a 0.9 or 0.8, I’m paying 10 to 20 percent less for worker’s compensation.
“One of our best clients is the federal government,” he continued. “And the federal government thinks safety is so important that when you turn in a proposal with certain agencies, you have to attach your Mod as well. They look to see if it’s a 1.0 or less before considering a proposal. The reason I point that out is because, according to OSHA, one of the main sources of injuries in our industry is driving — it’s vehicular. The injury of a driver can be counted as a worker’s compensation event. Something like that would impact our Mod and our ability to do business with one of our largest clients: the federal government.”
Trademasters also monitors its vehicles through GPS, which sends email alerts for selected conditions, such as speeding or sudden stops.
But, there’s also the danger of other drivers being distracted, Kyle added.
“Every time we bring this up, our drivers all have these war stories of other drivers being distracted,” he said. “This has a sort of doubling effect of why we can’t be distracted — because 20 percent of the other drivers are distracted. You always want to be driving defensively. So we say ‘it can wait,’ because it can. You can wait to respond to the phone call or text message.”
DO NOT DISTURB
J&J Air Conditioning in San Jose, California, has tried a different approach to eliminate distracted driving amongst its technicians and installers. For the last two years, the company has been employing the use of the ‘do not disturb’ feature on employees’ cellphones while they are driving.
“Our techs have Android Samsung phones, and we can set the phones to automatically connect to a preset Bluetooth device, so these devices connect to the vehicles,” said Frank Quintanar, service manager, J&J Air Conditioning. “What that does is engage this [Sync] feature, so it sends an auto reply to any text messages you receive while in the vehicle.”
There are several older vehicles without the Sync feature, Quintanar noted, but it is company policy that if the vehicle is equipped, the driver must use it.
“A few years ago, we really ramped up our safety program,” he said. “We felt it was important to include this. We had several accidents — some were at fault, but most were others’ mistakes. And in most cases, someone was on the phone. It doesn’t take much to lose sight of what you’re doing. Driving should be at the forefront. We saw a decrease in at-fault accidents once we started doing this here.”
While driving safety and this policy is important to the company, Quintanar said J&J doesn’t necessarily monitor that employees are using it as they should.
“The truck is a driving billboard, and people will call us if someone is on the phone or driving erratically,” he said. “But we can’t really police it. Our techs do have an increase in safety and awareness, and that’s what drives our program. It’s all about getting them home safely.”
Tyler Jeffrey, COO, Air Comfort Corp., Broadview, Illinois, heard about what J&J Air Conditioning had been doing at a Unified Group meeting, and he decided the program would work well for his company.
“This automatic reply message is available as an option on most smartphones, and most of us didn’t even know it existed,” he said. “We updated our company policy so we now use this. We had watched a video at a safety meeting about distracted driving that said even talking on a hands-free device is the equivalent of drunk driving, which was news to us. We hadn’t heard that message before. We’re always thinking, as long as it’s hands-free, we’re fine. But you can only do so many things at one time. When you’re talking, it takes a primary portion of your brain, and driving becomes secondary. It’s dangerous.”
Jeffrey implemented the ‘do not disturb’ feature for employees just a few months ago. It’s mandatory for all company-issued cellphones. However, there’s really no way to monitor use, he noted. Instead, the company keeps reiterating that it wants employees to go home safe at the end of the day, and that it’s OK to get back to a customer at a later time.
“We used to have Friday morning job meeting phone calls to talk to the sales engineers about their projects,” Jeffrey said. “We had one sales engineer who would joke about missing his exit because he was on the phone with us, and I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re about to kill John.’”
Needless to say, the company has since ended that practice. The job meeting phone calls no longer take place while the techs are driving — they must pull over and call in once they are parked.
Another option for preventing distracted driving is Cellcontrol, a patented distracted driving solution featuring two main components: a hardware device in the vehicle called DriveID and an app on the phone or other mobile device. Bobby Ring, president and CEO, Meyer & Depew Co. Inc., Kenilworth, New Jersey, implemented the technology a few months ago.
“Cellcontrol requires the app be installed on all the phones, and there is a small device that is put into the truck — it’s a little bit bigger than a pack of cigarettes,” said Ring. “The device talks to the app, and tells the app when the vehicle is in motion.”
The Cellcontrol platform stops all mobile device distractions, including texts, phone calls, emails, and web browsing; however, emergency calls are always allowed through the platform. Additionally, the software is completely configurable to each company. Fleet administrators can decide which mobile functions to allow in safe mode, such as allowing navigation apps but blocking texts and hand-held calls.
“The software allows us to define what an employee can and can’t do while the vehicle is in motion,” Ring said. “We’re currently allowing them to make and receive Bluetooth hands-free phone calls. They can’t use the device for anything else. It’s basically locked down. If need be, we could even restrict that. You can set your policy up so the phone is absolutely useless — it can’t be used for any reason while someone is driving. There’s a lot of pros and cons to not doing that. There’s always a time when we have to get ahold of someone, so we decided the ability to have a Bluetooth conversation was important to our business.”
Ring said there has been an increased awareness of distracted driving since incorporating the Cellcontrol in company vehicles. However, it’s too early to tell if the technology is reducing accident rates. Ring hopes that the company will see a significant reduction, at least in accidents caused by his drivers.
“This has led to some tension in the workplace as well because we told our employees that they do not have to install this app on their personal phones, but if they wanted to bring their personal phones into the workplace, they had to install the app,” he said. “Some of them are concerned about ‘Big Brother’ because we have some ability to know where they’re at and what they’re doing during work hours. But if they’re not in their vehicle or not in close proximity to the Bluetooth range of the device that’s in their vehicle, the app does absolutely nothing. We have no desire or interest to know what they’re doing outside of working hours.”
Every automobile and worker’s compensation accident is reviewed by Meyer & Depew’s safety review board, who then makes recommendations on disciplinary action, policy change, or additional training in order to prevent an accident from happening again. The company has also outlined progressive disciplinary actions and consequences for employees bringing personal cellphones into the workplace without installing the Cellcontrol app.
“There are multiple benefits for us to be doing this,” Ring added. “The most obvious ones are avoiding injury to our employees or anyone else on the road. Other benefits are reducing the cost of accidents, reducing the cost of worker’s compensation claims, and promoting a positive image in the community.”
Publication date: 5/28/2018