Distracted driving

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Preventing operator inattention is a major concern for transit agencies. Source: Thomas R. Machnitzki

Introduction

When the focus of a bus or rail operator is taken away from their surroundings, risk of collision and injury increases. Distracted driving is a serious safety concern and many agencies have taken steps to discourage these behaviors. Some states have enacted distracted driving laws with penalties for driving while using cell phones, for example <ref>USDOT. http://www.distraction.gov/ Accessed 13:30 on 26 January 2014</ref>. In California, all bus drivers are legally prohibited from any cell phone use in the performance of their duties.

Strategies

Operator distractions

Agencies should discourage (and many outright ban) the use of any electronic device such as cell phones or music players during the course of work. Strategies may range from requiring devices to be used only if the vehicle is parked, to outright bans except on scheduled breaks. Distractions can also include food and drink. Energy is important for operators to stay focused on long shifts, but consumption of food can be distracting while operating. Operators should limit food and drink to layovers and breaks.

Water bottles are an example of a risk operators may never consider: dropping the cap of a water bottle (or the drink itself) while on the road. Operators may take their eyes off the road to retrieve the cap or bottle from rolling away or under the pedals. Even at a stop light, taking eyes and focus away from the road increases risk of collision. Operators may use water bottles without screw-on caps, but better is to discourage these habits except when parked.

Referring to maps and schedules is another operator distraction. A good operator training program should ensure familiarity with routes and information and limit the need to refer to printed materials. Additionally, operators should only reference printed materials when they are fully stopped, usually at a bus stop. Passengers sometimes engage the operator in conversation or ask questions. Passengers can be asked to avoid chatting with operators, and the agency should train operators to check their focus and attention. Better training on all aspects of distractions makes operators aware of the risks and encourages better habits.

Agency distractions

Some aspects of bus operator are "necessary" distractions, such as radio communication with dispatch, but the agency is responsible for mitigating these distractions. Dispatch communication should be minimal - this includes training for dispatcher protocol as much as operator training on appropriate radio use.

Service operating conditions are another area to consider. If an agency prioritized schedule adherence (on-time reliability), operators may stress to the point of distraction trying to keep up with the schedule. Service planners need to consider the tightness of route timing and check for changing conditions on the road over time. Driver fatigue and fitness for duty is a major factor that should be monitored by supervisors.

Agencies can also help mitigate other circumstances on board the vehicle. Careful arrangement of controls keep ergonomics in mind and reduce the need for the operator to take their eyes off the road. Familiarity is also important - even vehicles of different eras and models can have similar switch layouts or farebox interfaces. These considerations extend also to vehicle mirror type and placement, and equipment maintenance. Sending buses out with jury-rigged systems and flashing warning lights is unsafe for all.

References

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Further Reading

American Public Transit Association. (2009). "Reducing Driver-Controlled Distractions While Operating a Vehicle on Agency Time."

This document focuses on distractions that are within the ability of an operator to mitigate.

American Public Transit Association. (2009). "Reducing Agency-Controlled Distractions While Operating a Vehicle on Agency Time."

This document focuses on distractions within control of management.

Kozub, C.A. (2013). "Transit Bus Operator Distraction Policies." Transit Cooperative Research Program.

This synthesis reviews practices by surveyed agencies as well as three case studies.