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The sobering reality of in-vehicle infotainment

Connected cars are now commonplace. From Bluetooth hands-free systems to vehicles that will read your text messages; drivers can now stay connected whether at or away from the office. This ability to stay constantly connected offers clear benefits for businesses, but with the uptake of in-car infotainment increasing, what is the impact on driving behaviour?

Businesses need to understand how these seemingly helpful innovations may have unintended consequences.

When we talk about in-vehicle infotainment, this encompasses anything from a simple sat-nav to a voice-operated stereo system. While the benefits of these technologies may be clear, all still require some level of visual, manual or cognitive input from the driver.

Hands-free technology for mobile phones is perhaps the most used, and most useful, featuring as standard on most new vehicles. Many businesses take full advantage of it as it allows employees to communicate both in the office and on the road.

Addressing the risks of in-vehicle infotainment is essential in safeguarding employees and reducing insurance claims. Reduced driver reaction times, an increased risk of collision and the possibility of criminal prosecution are issues that all businesses should be concerned with.

Sobering statistics

Research undertaken by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) uncovered some sobering statistics regarding hands-free telephone technology. The results of the study showed that driving behaviour is in fact impaired more during a phone conversation than by having a blood alcohol level at the UK legal limit, even when using hands-free technology.

In summarising the findings, Dr Nick Reed, Senior Human Factors Researcher at TRL, commented that, “Our results match those of other studies which have shown that drivers have less control of their vehicle and show reduced awareness of their surroundings when making handheld or hands-free mobile phone calls. This results in an accident risk that is four times greater and that persists for up to 10 minutes after the call has been completed.”

Rate of uptake

Andy Price, Motor Fleet European Practice Leader at Zurich, explains that the opportunities for drivers to become distracted are only increasing. “Hands-free phone calls used to be the most common everyday distraction that a driver had in their vehicle. But now, with the proliferation of smartphones, vehicle manufacturers are doing all they can to allow their customers to interface with others in whatever shape or form. In turn, that is enabling risky driving behavior in vehicles.”

Andy adds: “Although there is no offence committed by using a hands-free mobile phone, there are existing offences that the police can use to prosecute drivers if they think that the use of such a device has led to a collision. Offences such as driving without due care and attention.”

Risk management approaches

Following the TRL’s research on hands-free telephone use, international transport provider FirstGroup banned the use of mobile phones, including hands-free use, across its entire 135,000 employee workforce. In conjunction with the ban, FirstGroup launched a widespread internal communication programme to enforce the ban, and an audit process to ensure employees were compliant.

Using this example of hands-free phone calls, Andy explains that the approach to risk management must be dependent on the nature of business, and that education must be at the heart of a successful approach.

“The easiest thing to do is to have a policy that just says ‘don’t do it’. But actually there is more to consider. First of all, the business has to think whether they can operate without employees using a telephone while driving; and that will vary depending on what type of business they are and the kind of operations they undertake.”

If a ban on using mobile phones is decided upon, Andy believes “it is essential that there is an alternative in place and that it is appropriate to the business.” For example, if a salesperson is on the road, their phone could be switched off and calls re-routed to the office. That way customers are still able to contact somebody to get the information they require.

Andy recalls a situation where this solution was used: “Analysis showed that most of the calls the salespeople received were customers asking where their goods were. The customer would phone the salesperson, the salesperson would ring the office, and then ring the customer back. After the customers were educated to ring the office number, they actually got their answer quicker. Costs to the business went down and the level of customer service went up. So even in a sales environment there are different ways of doing things that may not only be safer, but more cost-effective and customer-friendly too.”

Education is the key to effectively combating the risks of in-vehicle infotainment. “Employees must understand how risky the behaviour is. If they are used to making phones calls on the road, and they haven’t had a crash while doing so, then they will normalise that as safe behaviour,” explains Andy. “It is really about getting the employees to want to not use their phone and be able to not use their phone; and that would apply for any in-vehicle distraction.”

The importance with all new technology is to understand and address the unintended risks they pose and not be blinded by the benefits. If the implementation of in-car technology continues at the same pace, proper management of the associated risks is essential to safeguarding businesses and their employees.

Possible policy approaches to infotainment use:

Basic

  • Have a written policy regarding infotainment. This should at least state the current legal position on the use of handheld equipment and the requirement to drive with due care and attention

Moderate

  • Prohibit outgoing communication while driving
  • If continuing to allow incoming calls, then ask employees to tell the caller they are driving and offer to call them when back in the office
  • If the call needs to be taken them aim to keep it as brief as possible, or look to pull over at the earliest opportunity

Strict

  • Prohibit the use of infotainment while driving
  • Consider removing any functionality from vehicles
  • Ensure that there is an alternative in place if anyone wishes to contact the driver – for example, diverting calls to the office, or to voicemail

 

Rowlands & Hames would like to thank Zurich Insurance for this article.

Tagged with: motor insurance


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