Emergency Vehicle Driver Distractions

Robert TutterowBy Robert Tutterow

An article in the New York Times, titled “Gadgets in Emergency Vehicles Seen as Driving Peril,” made several of the fire service Web sites some time ago.

The article discussed how onboard computers, navigation systems, “sophisticated” radios and cell phones often divert a driver’s attention. Although the focus of the article was primarily on ambulances and law enforcement vehicles, the same problems can be found on fire apparatus.

On the whole, the problems are not as bad for career departments that respond with more than one person aboard. The exceptions are chief officer vehicles and other support or specialty vehicles that often respond with the driver only. The problem is more pronounced for volunteer and combination departments that often respond all their vehicles with only a driver.

Driver distraction is not a new topic. However, it is a topic that is beginning to receive the overdue attention it deserves. According to a recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near crashes involve some sort of driver distraction. The report states that the distraction occurs within three seconds of the crash.

The study identified three major types of distractions: eyes off the road (visual); mind off the road (cognitive); and hands off the steering wheel (manual). Today’s “infotainment” systems cause all three to occur, if not simultaneously, certainly in a very compressed sequential order.

The principal actions that cause drivers to be distracted are cell phone use, reaching for a moving object inside the vehicle, looking at an object or an event outside the vehicle, reading, and applying makeup.

We’ve all been behind the vehicle where the driver is typically slow to move when the light turns green, doesn’t drive at a steady speed, drifts around on the highway and generally looks to be lost. As we manage to pass that vehicle, we notice the driver is either on a cell phone or working with some type of handheld electronic device.

Crashes are the leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 20. My department was involved in a major crash a few years ago when a teenage driver, talking on a cell phone, pulled out of a fast-food restaurant parking lot directly into the path of a responding ladder truck.

The resulting crash created a full-alarm assignment, as seven people were injured (including minor injuries to the four-person ladder company crew). In addition to the injuries, two vehicles were totaled, a utility pole was knocked down (with subsequent downed power lines), a fuel tank was ruptured and a brush fire started that involved the ladder truck. A major highway was closed for an extended period, and monetary damages were into six figures.

With 80 percent of all crashes having a common denominator, it’s easy to see why this issue is receiving considerable attention. Distraction crashes are preventable.

With all the devices that can distract other drivers, you would think we don’t need any of our own. The automatic transmission was one of the first equipment developments to help keep apparatus drivers from being distracted. Many veteran firefighters, especially volunteers, remember the days of trying to steer, change gears, communicate on the radio, and operate the siren all at once. We needed an extra set of coordinated arms, legs and eyes.

As automatic transmissions were emerging on the apparatus scene, there was the typical resistance among some that they were too expensive and unproven. Automatic transmissions were thought to be for those who really did not know how to drive a truck, i.e., “sissies.” (Granted, the ability to shift gears requires a bit of skill and experience.) However, many officials recognized the added safety benefits of automatic transmissions, as they allowed drivers to keep both hands on the steering wheel.

Today’s in-cab electronic devices are not to be discouraged. They provide vital information and, in many cases, have improved our response times. We need to learn how to use these devices in ways that do not distract us.

We are now able to have visual and audible information in real time. If we’re going into an unfamiliar area, the navigation system will direct us there. If we need the building history of the structure to which we’re responding, it’s readily available. We instantly know the other units responding. We have radios with multiple channels while en route.

This, and more, could be occurring as we respond. Mix in the audible and visual warning devices that may or may not be getting the attention of other motorists, and we have the recipe to create an incident before arriving to mitigate the incident to which we were assigned.

Most departments have probably developed a policy on the use of electronic devices in the apparatus. If your department has not, why wait? It’s always better to develop a policy before an issue arises than to develop a policy in reaction to a negative incident.

For example, cell phone use should be strictly prohibited during emergency response and at emergency scenes, unless it pertains to the emergency. Policies should spell out what devices are to be used while the vehicle is in motion and who is to use them (if more than one person is in the vehicle). For battalion chief vehicles, electronic equipment is a good reason for chief’s aides (maybe in a better economy).

Much has been said about equipment kept in the cab. That discussion has stressed that only equipment essential to the “response mode” should be kept in the cab. And it must be properly secured. Our discussion applies to driver attentiveness. If a piece of equipment is loose and starts to slide around, it will definitely distract the driver. I am reminded of the story about the hydrant wrench that slid behind the brake pedal. Think about that for a few moments.

Driver training and awareness are part of the solution. Unfortunately, overall driver training is a one-time deal in the United States. As one safety expert noted some years ago: “After licensing, drivers build two sets of habits, good ones they pick up by dint of experience and bad ones they think are good until they are caught.”

It appears we can look forward to better technology to help us. Apparatus manufacturers are arranging cabs so that controls are more readily readable and accessible. We are seeing better mirrors and better placement of the mirrors to help drivers focus on the road ahead. Steering wheel controls are an excellent way to operate devices without taking our hands off the steering wheel.

As the New York Times report stated, the University of New Hampshire, with the aid of $34 million in federal financing, is developing hands-free technology for police cars. The system will allow police officers to simply speak out the name of a driver and have the computer scan records while a speaker announces the license number and other data.

Other technologies can scan the license plate of a vehicle in front and then pull up records showing owner information and license data. Hopefully, applications of this technology can be adapted to the fire service. Maybe in the future, our systems will interface with systems used by other drivers: “Engine 1 to the red Honda headed south on Maple Avenue. Hang up and get out of the way!”

Editor’s Note: Robert Tutterow, who has 30 years in the fire service, is the Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department health and safety officer. He is a former member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Department Apparatus Committee and is on two other NFPA committees, the Structural and Proximity Firefighting Protective Ensemble Technical Committee and the Technical Correlating Committee for Fire and Emergency Services PPE.

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