Police and Business Monitor Distracted Driving

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Inside the cabin of a Howlett Logistics delivery van emblazoned with the Amazon logo, a camera hangs from the rearview mirror, capturing the driver’s movements – both of his body and his eyes. The system’s goal, says President and CEO Stacy Howlett, is to minimize distracted driving and, ultimately, the potential for crashes.

“The NetraDyne app coupled with the system in the van monitors that drivers are not looking down. They can’t touch their personal phones or they get [penalized]. There are protocols we have that make sure safety is at the forefront of everything we’re doing,” she says.

Howlett Logistics, based in Boardman, is an Amazon partner that delivers packages across the region.

“Amazon holds its service partners to strict compliance around safety protocols,” Howlett says.

On its website, NetraDyne claims its AI-powered system can reduce distracted driving by 60% in two weeks. The Driveri app – which drivers must log into to start the delivery vehicles – uses in-cabin cameras to see where drivers are looking and measures events such as speeding or hard acceleration and braking to compile a score for each driver and fleet. Outward-facing cameras also watch the road in front of the vehicles, monitoring and analyzing traffic and signals.

“The process is dictated to us by Amazon and it’s very robust,” Howlett says. “For me it’s peace of mind. I want them doing things the right way, down to how they make deliveries. It’s nerve-wracking to send 55 trucks on the road for 10 hours a day, seven days a week. Safety is everything for us.”

To date, Howlett Logistics drivers have not been at fault in a crash because of distracted driving, she says.

In his 3½ years at Nick Strimbu Inc., director of safety John Ulmer recalls just one crash resulting from a company driver being distracted. Getting into a serious crash can cost the company significant time and money, he says. The cost of damages is often reimbursed by the company’s insurance, he says, but lost roadtime and undeliverable cargo is a sunk cost.

He points to a recent accident where a Strimbu truck was rear-ended at high speed; the Strimbu driver wasn’t distracted, but he’s not sure about the at-fault driver.

John Ulmer points to one of the two in-cabin cameras, one facing inside and one facing outside, installed in trucks operated by Nick Strimbu Inc. 

“Instead of picking up on Thursday, delivering on Friday, picking up another load on Friday and delivering Monday, we had to unload on Friday and then take the truck to the shop to get it checked out,” Ulmer says. “If we’re tagged at 10 mph at a stop light with no damage, we might lose 45 minutes as we wait for the cops to do their jobs. There’s not much impact other than paperwork. On the other hand, if there’s significant damage, we can be significantly delayed.”

According to a 2014 report from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the average cost of a truck crash resulting in injuries is nearly $200,000, a number that skyrockets to $3.6 million if someone dies as a result. On top of that, there are tickets and fines for being at fault in a crash. The FMCSA in 2010 banned all truck drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving, with penalties including fines of up to $2,750 for the driver and $11,000 for the company.

The frequency of crashes involving commercial vehicles has been on the rise since 2010 and insurance rates have tagged along. Trade magazine Business Insurance projected commercial auto insurance to rise 14% in 2021, while the Commercial Property/Casualty Index Survey compiled by the Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers forecast “diminished momentum” on rate increases this year as renewal rates have increased quarterly since late 2011.

To promote safety, Strimbu trucks are equipped with inward- and outward-facing cameras to capture footage of any crashes involving its fleet of roughly 100 trucks.

“If the camera reveals our driver was distracted … our disciplinary process kicks in immediately. If they cruise down the road with their phone in their hand, there are absolutely consequences,” Ulmer says. “To help keep our guys safe, we train them and tell them the ramifications of being in an accident because they’re distracted. It’s not pretty. Even if you’re driving a car, distracted and rear-end somebody and they die, you can look at criminal time and civil suits. That’s the same for a truck driver and things are multiplied because of the size of our vehicles.”

During their orientation and as needed, Strimbu drivers go through safety training using the Smith System, a method of defensive driving developed for truck drivers. The main tenet of the system is to be continuously aware of your surroundings.

“If you’re using the Smith System, you’re not distracted because you’re keeping an eye on the big picture. It’s about paying attention and knowing your surroundings; if you’re doing that, you can’t be distracted,” says Ulmer, who drove for nearly 20 years. “It also provides some measures in dealing with others who are distracted because it’s about maintaining your space and knowing what others are doing.”

While companies like Howlett Logistics and Strimbu Inc. are taking measures to reduce distracted driving, it remains a serious problem here and nationwide. In April, the Ohio Department of Transportation labeled as a “distracted driving safety corridor” Interstate 680 from its nexus with Interstate 80 to U.S. Route 224. The 11-mile stretch saw 925 crashes between 2016 and 2020. Partnering with the Ohio State Highway Patrol and Youngstown Police Department, ODOT has put up signage encouraging drivers to keep their focus on the road and revealing how long it’s been since the corridor’s last major crash, while the law enforcement agencies are increasing their patrols along the highway.

“People think that we’re going to be out there hammering people with tickets to fix distracted driving. That’s just not the case. It’s just one part of it. Education is key,” says Highway Patrol Sgt. Eric Brown. “It’s accountability to one another. If you’re in the car and the driver isn’t paying attention, call them out on it.”

People commonly think of distracted driving as checking their phones or using their car’s entertainment system – whether it’s a traditional radio dial or a more advanced infotainment screen that requires more attention – but it goes further, says Amanda Lencyk, Mercy Health-Youngstown trauma injury prevention and outreach coordinator. It can be as simple as looking out the side window at the scenery or kids being noisy in the backseat.

“One of the important things we stress in the community is that distraction is anything that takes your attention – your eyes, your hands, your thoughts – away from the task of driving,” Lencyk says. “I’m guilty of checking my email at stop lights. We all have a million distractions and this pressure to keep being busy. When you have a device that can check all those emails and messages, it’s easy to let yourself be distracted.”

Among the suggestions for reducing distractions she offers are apps that send automated replies to texts when someone is driving and fostering a company culture that pulls back some of the urgency about responding immediately to every text, email and phone call.

At St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital, the area’s only Level 1 trauma center, injuries from vehicle collisions are the second-most common reason people visit the emergency department, behind falls.

“Even with falls, the most devastating injuries we see are from crashes,” she says. “When they come into the trauma bay, we don’t know if distracted driving is behind it. But we know that it’s often a component of the car crashes that we treat. What we know is that most can be prevented.”

Through the first five months of 2021, the Ohio State Highway Patrol reports 1,897 crashes in Mahoning County, 100 of which included distracted driving as a factor in the incident. Along the I-680 safety corridor, there were 15 crashes through May 19, up from 10 in the same period of 2020, according to Brown.

In Trumbull County, there were 1,532 crashes through the first five months of 2021 with 78 including distracted driving as a factor. In Columbiana County, there were 651 crashes, 30 with a distracted driver.

“Pinpointing if it’s the result of distracted driving is sometimes difficult to do. One of the captions on the standardized report used across Ohio is if the driver was distracted,” Sgt. Brown says. “If you ask, people often say no. But sometimes people fess up and say, ‘I was texting,’ or that they were messing with the radio. A lot of times it comes down to the driver admitting what they were doing.”

Whether it’s in-cabin cameras and biometrics used by logistics companies or the signs put up by ODOT reminding drivers to put down their phones, the purpose of measures against distracted driving are all the same: getting all drivers and passengers to their destinations safely.

“It’s not just an injury to the individual. If it’s severe, they may not be able to work, which affects the whole family,” Mercy’s Lencyk says. “When those signs say, ‘The next text can wait,’ I don’t think people put it together that their next move could drastically affect themselves or their families. They don’t consider the implications it could have on everybody else.”

Pictured at top: The Ohio Department of Transportation erected signs in April notifying drivers that an 11-mile stretch of I-680 from I-80 to U.S. Route 224 is a “distracted driving corridor.” Law enforcement has increased patrols in the corridor. From 2016 through 2020, there were 925 crashes on this stretch, according to the Ohio State Highway Patrol. Of those, 263 resulted in injury and six were fatal. Distracted driving is attributed to 27 of those crashes.