Mobile PCs Can Put the Brakes on Distracted Driving


Since the 1960s, automotive deaths and injuries have steadily declined, per mile driven, due to the many steps taken to incrementally improve safety for the motoring public. First there were seatbelts, followed later by crumple zones, airbags, and door side-impact braces. Roads became safer with more-consistent signage, better- lit intersections, and—most significantly—rumble strips in the shoulders. The long-term efforts to reduce drunk driving have also made real improvements in road safety. Most recently, blind-spot detection systems, backup cameras, and other driver aids have helped to reduce crashes. It’s all proof that concerted efforts to address new safety risks with definitive—and tangible—solutions do indeed work.

But over the last few years, automotive wrecks and deaths have increased. You know why—distracted driving. Distracted driving is certainly a concern for utilities that rely on vehicle-mounted rugged tablet and laptop PCs to dispatch and route crews, share real-time data, and track their personnel. The reality is that even the best driver education and policy guidelines don’t deter risky behavior as effectively as we all hope. Some technicians attempt to read incoming service requests, record work done, and use email for discussions—all while driving—despite the risks and the fact that those items can wait until the vehicle has safely stopped. And some workers are tempted to post on social media, play games, or browse the web—even on a company-issued computer.

So how can employers reduce the risk of distracted driving liabilities at the same time they’re asking workers to increase reliance on rugged tablets while on the move? How can they implement sure-fire safety measures while also introducing in-vehicle connectivity, software capabilities, and workflow processes that encourage more frequent screen glances?

As mobile technology advocates, utility industry leaders, and employers to millions of field workers on the roads every day, we must heed today’s strong call to action to remove mobile device distraction as best as we can. There’s a lot we can learn from the early, and somewhat similar, challenges of high-intensity discharge (HID) automotive headlights.

HID bulbs, first introduced in Europe, produce more light than the older tungsten light bulbs. Once you’ve driven a dark country lane in a car with Xenon headlights, it’s easy to see the difference and quickly realize how inadequate older headlights are. But the newer, brighter headlights—while an improvement for the vehicle’s owner—can diminish visibility to oncoming traffic if the headlight assembly is misaligned. Realizing that poorly installed HID lights could cause a backlash from the public, European industry leaders and regulators agreed to only produce HID light assemblies with an automatic, self-leveling mechanism. This proactive solution allowed vehicle owners to still take advantage of HID bulbs’ benefits without posing a risk to themselves or those around them.

Utilities should attempt to reduce the risk and maintain the reward of in-vehicle mobile PC technologies in the same vein. Just like the early days of HID lights, the utility industry should get ahead of the regulations, if their jurisdiction hasn’t already imposed them.

How do you do that?

The same mobile devices that can introduce this risk can also be equipped to reduce the risk. Some solutions use GPS, motion detectors in the device, a connection to the vehicle’s OBD-II port, and other techniques to judge the driver, control what they can see on their phone or tablet, and report back to management. If you attend any of the conferences that focus on tools for utilities—DistribuTECH being the largest—you’ll see many booths that address driver performance. They all can help, and since “any plan beats no plan,” I’d encourage you to review and implement one—or more—of these solutions.

However, I believe that the best solution is one that’s integrated into your mobile device ecosystem. The ideal implementations embed specialized circuitry that can independently detect vehicle motion. That will activate software on the mobile device, which enforces whatever policies your organization sets forth regarding usage in motion. In short, these integrated motion-detecting systems can reliably blank the screen or allow only one application to actively run while the vehicle is rolling, such as GPS routing. The system can then reenable all data, communications, and application capabilities when the mobile device is removed from the vehicle or the truck is stopped.

Though all approaches will aid in preventing distracted driving with more surety, it’s important to understand how each works in greater detail before choosing one—or all—mobile device–delivered safeguards for your in-vehicle computers:

Let’s start with the motion-detecting systems that “black out” certain software or the entire screen: Trucks and other vehicles used by utilities have a specific vibration “signature.” By using a separate, specially integrated motion detector (not the motion detector built into the tablet) and knowledge of the characteristic signature of movement, these systems know when it would be unsafe to display information on the screen. Typically installed in the rugged tablet’s vehicle dock, they can detect if the screen is rotated so that only a passenger can see it. This “smart” design is used to prevent “dumb” implementations that frustrate users.

Let’s contrast this with GPS-based technologies, which will certainly detect motion and even speed, but don’t work well in tunnels, parking garages, and dense cities with tall buildings. They can’t tell if the tablet is rotated to the passenger side of the cab either. Also, in-the-device motion sensing technologies (whether GPS or motion-detecting circuitry) can be fooled by those walking at a specific gait or riding a train or a subway, thanks to the rails’ regular click-clack joints.

Regardless of the system used to determine if the vehicle is in motion, you ultimately define the safety policies these systems activate on the device. The easiest policy to implement is “all off,” which blanks the screen while leaving the tablet running. This completely eliminates any distraction. More commonly, though, organizations will choose to leave a mapping program on, so that the driver can safely navigate to the next call. If you use a web-based navigation tool, you can allow only that URL to be visible when the vehicle is in motion. You can also choose to “white list” other applications if preferred. Some of these prevention systems also provide rollover detection, vehicle logs to support preventive maintenance planning, and backup camera functions.

In summary, you have ways to reduce in-vehicle liabilities as you increase rugged tablet PC use in all aspects of your business. And you can gain additional benefits from your mobility investments without the downside of distracted driving—but only if you implement hardware, such as rugged tablets, capable of delivering these critical safeguards.