Evolution Takes Time
BY MICHAEL S. CONNELLY

We're still evolving. Oh, I don't mean us as humans. I'll leave that debate up to scientists who are much more scholarly than I am.  I mean us as a society, and more specifically, as an industry. We like to think of ourselves in the U.S. transportation industry as being on top of our game…as world leaders.  We believe we have the best, close to the best, or access to the best equipment, technology, infrastructure, safety standards, people, etc., in the world.

Yet everywhere you look these days, you see the results of countless dollars spent on research by various U.S. government entities.  Headlines read: "FMCSA Study Reveals Driver Behavior Causes Most Truck Crashes" or "NHTSA Study Finds Driver Inattention Leading Factor in Most Crashes."  The articles these headlines announce go on to cite statistics such as "Drivers of large trucks…are 10 times more likely to be the cause of the crash than other factors, such as weather, road conditions, and vehicle performance."  And, "Nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near crashes involved some sort of driver inattention within 3 seconds before the crash…"

The fact that the United States, leader of the free world, just now seems to realize that driver behavior is the most dangerous variable associated with the task of driving is borderline embarrassing. Ask any fleet safety director who has been in his or her position any time at all and he or she would have told you the same thing. For these safety directors, the issue is not knowing what the problem is - it's knowing what to do about it. How does one accurately access driver behavior issues? How does one accurately assess the level of distraction at which a driver becomes unsafe? And, once these determinations have been made, how does one go about helping the driver?

Meanwhile, our neighbors to the north have one up on us. Canadians have discovered the same problem with driver behavior and driver inattention. The only difference is they recognized the problem decades ago and have since spent their time successfully developing a solution. Their solution is the Driver Competency Assessment, or DCA.

Unlike traditional skills-oriented training and testing, the DCA is an assessment of a driver's cognitive ability to operate safely. (Mentally, how does he/she handle the task of driving?) It is conducted on standard routes and is designed to address the question, "How much is this driver at risk in comparison to other drivers in a restricted environment?"

The DCA measures crash potential by comparing the candidate with all other drivers under normal driving conditions, under two types of distracted conditions, and in both simple and complex driving environments. The assessment generates a profile based on a driver’s good decisions and his or her errors. It provides an on-road, in-vehicle measure of those attributes which research suggests are most directly related to crash involvement: 1) risk management, 2) inattention, and 3) distractibility, all driver behavioral issues. The higher functions required for driving become apparent during this assessment and are taken into account in the analysis. The resulting competency/risk measure profiles a driver's decision making, and quantifies the degree of variability exhibited by the driver.

Based on the assessment, a remediation program (if warranted) is then prescribed for the driver. Not the "one size fits all" approach traditionally thrown at drivers, but rather a program designed to address the particular shortcomings of the individual driver as born out by the assessment. A number of protocols and diagnostic processes are used to determine the most effective method of helping a driver achieve and maintain maximum safe levels of vehicle operation.

If the process sounds vaguely familiar to you, it is because it is the same one you encountered the last time you visited your doctor. It is a medical process. Someone presents symptoms of an underlying problem (a crash or near-crash), an examination is conducted (the DCA), and a treatment is prescribed (DCA remediation).

Evolution takes time. The use of a medical process in driver development is a major evolutionary leap forward from the traditional, educational process we currently employ. And as with all such changes, this one will no doubt take time.  But with over 43,000 people killed on our nation's highways last year, time is running out.

Mike Connelly is the Vice President of Transhield, a third-party transportation safety management firm with locations in Maryland and South Carolina. He can be reached at 717-262-5576.