In terms of enforcement, the agency took a measured approach. Metro Transit clearly communicated to its operators its interest in eliminating the hazard created by distracted driving. In November of 2004, the definition of an electronic violation was changed to include talking on a cell phone or radio handset, listening to an electronic device, or wearing an earplug or headpiece while their vehicle is moving. Moreover, the violation was elevated from a Class B to a Class A (or more severe) violation. Consequently, operators are subject to a Class A violation and a Record of Warning. That change reflected a more severe disciplinary action than ever before. To put this in context, if an operator receives three Class A violations over a 12-month period, discipline could include termination.
Metro Transit has elevated the importance of a cell phone violation in late 2009. The consequences for such a violation include a 20-day suspension on the first offense and termination on the second. The policy has been grieved and is currently in arbitration.
An important component of operator behavior comes to the agency from its customers. Metro Transit pays close attention to customer service complaints; they are logged and documented. Operators are counseled as appropriate and, based on the nature and number of complaints, an operator could be subject to disciplinary action.
Metro Transit has data to document the effectiveness of its distracted driving initiative.
As noted above, Metro Transit pays attention to customer service complaints. Beginning in 2005, training on distracted driving was provided to all current bus operators and an emphasis on enforcement followed the training. When education was supported by measured enforcement, it saw the largest decrease in customer complaints in 2006.
The agency has also learned that it cannot simply engage in a solitary campaign and be done with it. The agency noticed that about two years after the concentrated effort the complaints had increased a bit. It is currently working through ways to re-emphasize the program. In 2008, Metro Transit changed the Safety Awards program so that a Safety Class A violation (which includes electronic device violations) is treated just like a responsible accident. This precludes an operator from earning a safe driving award for that year.
Fewer Accidents Means Dollars Saved
Metro Transit tracks accidents and generates a rate expressed as accidents per 100,000 miles. Accidents include collisions and on-board passenger falls, regardless of fault. The agency feels if it pays attention to all accidents — not just at-fault accidents — it can work at avoiding all collisions.
Further, each accident has a value that represents the liability or cost to the company. Avoiding accidents, then, would translate to a company’s bottom line. It is often difficult to quantify the effectiveness of a program, but in this case they have been able to calculate dollars saved through accident avoidance.
Except for a very slight increase between the years 2006 and 2007 (possibly explainable at least in part by the December snowstorms in 2007), both the nominal accidents and the accident rate has dropped. As a matter of significance, the accident rate has dropped to a point lower than the agency has enjoyed in 10 years.
The Risk Management department has done a lot of work quantifying accident occurrences with claims expense. Every accident avoided equates to approximately $3,300 in reduced claims expense. Compared against the 2005 baseline, Metro Transit experienced 138 fewer accidents in 2008. If one uses the statistic from Carnegie Mellon, that between 25 percent and 50 percent of all accidents are attributable to distracted driving and assuming that the operators are half of the equation (the other half being the other driver, etc.), then the claims savings for Metro Transit’s distracted driving mitigation program would be somewhere between $57,000 and $227,000. Further, when one applies property damage costs, administrative costs, workers’ compensation, etc., the savings are even more dramatic.
Metro Transit has a fiduciary duty to the citizens of Minnesota and an ethical responsibility to preserve the safety of its employees, its patrons and the public at large. It has demonstrated that its distracted driving program contributes to fulfilling its stewardship responsibilities, enhances safety and actually translates to cost savings.
Michael J. Conlon is director of rail and bus safety with Metro Transit and Brenda L. Himrich is manager of bus safety with Metro Transit.