Any discussion of vehicle safety begins with a conundrum: new cars and trucks have never been safer, and yet the number of people who lost their lives in motor vehicle accidents went up for the first time in nearly a decade. Preliminary data from the National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that as many as 40,000 people died in motor vehicle accidents in 2016, up 6% over 2015 and 14% over 2014.
Does that mean that any attempt to make vehicles safer is a fool’s errand, destined to be undermined by “the human factor?” What would the number have been without all the new safety technology? If it continues to be a seesaw battle between technologies that distract us and those that save us, then what is the real value of an investment in safety technology?
The bottom-line on any investment is that it should pay for itself over time—and then some, and the sooner the better. The investment is much more than the cost of purchasing and installing the product or system. The investment also involves the training necessary to make the purchase of value to everyone. A solid waste company must educate its drivers in the use of the installed safety systems, explaining how it works and why it is being implemented. Effective safety systems save lives. The value to operators is that simple—if it helps ensure that they and the people around them make it home safely at the end of each day, it’s hard to argue that it’s not money well spent.
To guarantee a long-term return on investment from a safety system, the company providing the system must also provide ongoing support. If you purchase from a manufacturer who stands behind the performance of their systems, they are more likely to offer a warranty that stands behind the durability of their products. Should an issue arise, knowing there are reliable customer service resources who can help resolve the issue, or swiftly process item replacements, provides the peace of mind needed to help make a difficult purchasing decision easier.
It’s also important to ask about their customer support. Is there a cost involved in receiving that support? What is the process to receive any needed product support? Again, a manufacturer who stands behind their product will provide these services with ease and usually at little or no cost.
Chosen technologies must be capable of transferring from older to newer trucks and equipment and, ideally, have the flexibility to work with new emerging technologies. The key to a solid investment in safety technology is ensuring it has the ability to integrate with newer systems found on new trucks and equipment. This will further ensure you have made a sound safety investment.
Price Tag: $25 Billion
Investments in safety are all very tangible expenses. You have to weigh those against benefits that, until an accident happens, are mostly intangible. But once an accident happens, the expenses pile up very quickly. NSC’s annual “Injury Facts” statistical compendium puts the average economic cost of a crash at more than $1 million per death and more than $78,000 per nonfatal disabling injury.
According to OSHA, motor vehicle crashes cost employers $60 billion annually in medical care, legal expenses, property damage, and lost productivity. They also increase direct costs including workers’ compensation, Social Security, and private health and disability insurance. That’s a big number, and it doesn’t include indirect and intangible costs like management distractions, damage to the company’s good will and reputation, bad press, and lowered employee morale.
An Extra Person
in Every Vehicle
The number of devices and services that can fatally distract drivers continues to grow, matched only by the list of safety technologies designed to avoid or mitigate accidents. Yes, drivers can (and do) talk and text, play games, watch movies, and video chat with others—all behind the wheel of a car.
But, increasingly, the heavy-duty equipment that shares the road with these drivers are equipped with all manners of systems to counter inattentive driving and, frankly, to make heavy equipment drivers themselves more attentive. It is increasingly normal for the tractor trailer pulling up next to a texting driver to be equipped with collision mitigation systems for rear, front, and side blind spot monitoring, predictive cruise control, lane-departure warning, automatic braking, automatic steering correction, anti-lock brakes, auto-shift transmissions, and stability and traction control, along with in-cab monitors and warning devices.
Many of these systems are built using various applications of radar technology. And they are working. Medium- and heavy-duty commercial fleets are seeing an up to 85% reduction in vehicle accidents when they install object-detection systems on their fleets.
Even with current technology, safety issues continue at the intersection of the driver, the vehicle, and the environment. Radar gives drivers a virtual attendant who can leave the cab and continually “walk around” the truck to watch for potential accidents: is the vehicle ahead suddenly decelerating? Is a driver—or a motorcyclist, bicyclist, or pedestrian—hidden in a blind zone on the side or rear of my truck? Am I drifting out of my lane or following too closely? Is a collision imminent?
Of course, all of this is changing as the driver is slowly being replaced by first semi-autonomous and, eventually, fully autonomous vehicles. Will there someday be driverless waste collection trucks that digitally locate and load garbage containers? Will remote-controlled bulldozers operate inside transfer stations? If it means fewer accidents, very likely they will.
But getting there will be a challenge. Many people are nervous about the prospect of driving on roads filled with “robots.” Solid waste management would pose a particular challenge, given the complexity of each route. Anticipated systems like Advanced Driver Assistance and “vehicle-to-vehicle” communications can conceivably help drivers avoid accidents, but we humans are imperfect creatures. As such, the goal of eliminating all accidents is one we should continually strive for but likely never achieve.
The Imperative to Invest in Safer Vehicles
In the face of an accompanying rise in distractive technologies, the logic behind a continued investment in safety technologies is hard to argue against. With systems that can react much quicker than humans to avoid accidents, fleet operators should be able to count on seeing the number of incidents decrease along with the severity—and the cost—of each.
According to theory, as drivers are supported by increasingly sophisticated and predictive safety systems, they will drive at slower speeds, leave greater following distances, and have greater awareness of the vehicles that surround them. If realized, this will result in fewer and less severe crashes. Meanwhile, less aggressive acceleration and braking will reduce both vehicle maintenance and fuel costs.
Quite likely, commercial drivers will have little choice anyway. Once, not so long ago, seatbelts were considered optional accessories. Today, they, along with airbags, rear-view mirrors, child car seats and crumple zones are mandatory—and so will the safety systems we’ve been describing. The NSC plans to call for the introduction of a number of immediate mandatory highway safety policies including:
- Blind-spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warnings, and adaptive headlights.
- Installation and use of automated enforcement techniques to catch speeders.
- A change in enforcement of cell phone and seat belt use laws from secondary to primary. Currently, 80% of drivers in America incorrectly believe that hands-free devices are safer than using a handheld phone.
In a sense, vehicle safety can be equated to the medical profession’s investments in emerging technology. As with MRIs and stents, effective safety systems can reduce out-of-pocket costs and mitigate many indirect costs. Fleet management must also take into consideration the fact that personal injury attorneys are very aware of the safety technologies available to fleet operators these days.
As in medical malpractice suits, lawyers do not hesitate to point out to judges and juries that an injury or fatality could have been avoided—if only the company had implemented readily available backup cameras or radar systems. Not doing so, they argue, amounts to negligence. And any inference of negligence is like a red flag to judges and juries contemplating the size of damage awards.
So What Are the Benefits of Investing in Safety?
Americans have heard it a million times, starting when Ben Franklin first uttered these words three centuries ago: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. To put that in more concrete terms, Liberty Mutual Insurance has estimated that every $1 invested in injury prevention reduces costs for employers by $2.
Given the social and economic arguments in favor of making driving safer, the question becomes not so much of “Should we invest in advanced safety systems?” but rather “How can we make our safety technology investment in a way that gives us the highest ROI?”
The bottom-line in terms of safety is actionable intelligence: what information can you deliver to your drivers that will help them avoid or reduce the severity of accidents? But that’s only half of the equation. Fleet managers need information too. To get the most bang for your buck, smart safety investments include systems that deliver data to the “back-end” so managers can understand what caused an accident. Today, external-facing safety tools such as object detection and automatic braking and steering are coupled with inward-facing technology such as fatigue monitoring systems that track driver eye movement or brain waves. All of this information is being integrated into complete telematics fleet management solutions that analyze and predict vehicle and driver behaviors.
Until the day comes when humans are taken out of cabs, the best investments in safety systems will be those that look at accident prevention as a convergence of driver, vehicle, and the environment. Not only will these investments reduce the frequency and severity of accidents, they will also go a long way towards meeting the expectations of the public, the regulatory agencies, and, last but not least, they will save lives.