Minimize Distractions on the Phone: Driving Safely With Mobile Devices in the Cab

April 13, 2023

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Key Takeaways

This guide explores the dangers, costs, and regulations around distracted driving, and how fleets can minimize mobile distractions while on the road. Additionally, learn how Samsara keeps your drivers safe and connected in the cab.

Mobile devices are deeply ingrained in our daily lives, from personal devices at home to work devices in the cab. Today, smartphones and tablets are essential for fleets to keep their drivers safe, productive, and connected with their back office. However, distractions caused by mobile devices—notifications, calls, emails, and more—are tough to ignore while behind the wheel and can lead to real harm when left unmanaged.

The National Safety Council reports that 1.6 million car accidents are caused by unsafe cell phone use each year, and today’s most widespread distraction is texting and driving. Regardless of the known dangers, drivers still engage in texting while driving, placing themselves, their passengers, and others on the road at risk. Motor vehicle crashes caused by distracted driving led to more than 3,000 fatalities in 2020 alone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), while more than 400,000 people are injured each year due to distracted drivers.

Work-related car accidents cost employers a collective $40 billion each year. When commercial drivers are involved in collisions and found liable due to distracted driving, the average cost to employers can exceed $100,000 per non-fatal crash, and that number jumps to $750,000 when a fatality occurs. The cost of distracted driving extends far beyond the bottom line when lives are at risk—across all industries, car crashes are the leading cause of death for workers. In 2020, 1,038 workers died in motor vehicle crashes, accounting for 22% of all work-related fatalities.

To protect their drivers, communities, and bottom line, organizations can follow a few best practices to minimize mobile distractions and encourage safe device usage, such as implementing hands-free cell phone policies while driving and investing in technology that helps keep drivers focused behind the wheel. 

Distractions caused by mobile devices 

Without the right guardrails in place, mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets can create the perfect storm of distractions while driving. From persistent notifications to addictive scrolling, the distractions caused by mobile devices while driving can be grouped into four main categories: visual, auditory, manual, and cognitive. More often than not, phone use while driving creates more than one type of distraction. Here’s a quick breakdown of the different types of distractions caused by mobile devices:

Visual: Looking at an electronic device while driving

  • As notifications come in from emails, text messages, or social media, drivers are tempted to quickly look at their device to view and clear their queue. Even while behind the wheel, drivers might divert their gaze to check the latest updates from Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. 

  • An excessively bright screen can easily distract drivers at night, especially when their attention threshold is lowered by fatigue.

  • Video streaming while driving is a growing concern for fleet managers—as video platforms such as Netflix, YouTube, and TikTok increase in popularity, more and more drivers are consuming and even creating content while driving.

Auditory: Listening to mobile devices for nonessential activities 

  • Engaging in cell phone conversations while driving may seem harmless compared to texting or scrolling, however, participating in a conversation often requires the driver to pay more attention to their conversation than the road. 

  • Podcasts have become synonymous with long drives—captivating stories and topic deep-dives can pull drivers’ attention away from auditory signals on the road.

  • Audible pings from texts and other notifications are a frequent source of distraction, tempting drivers to multitask while driving.

Manual: Handling a cell phone while driving 

  • When drivers take their hands off the wheel to “quickly” answer an email or text message, their ability to react to unexpected changes in their environment is greatly reduced, putting their and others’ safety at risk.

  • Distracted driving peaks when drivers engage with social media—requiring them to hold their phone, look at their feed, and listen to videos, all while operating a moving vehicle. 

Cognitive: Thinking about something other than driving

  • Busy schedules and competing tasks during the work day can cause drivers to worry about what’s next on their to-do list instead of focusing 100% of their attention on driving.

  • Checking notifications, taking phone calls, and performing other device-based activities while driving adds significant cognitive load that distracts drivers from the road. 

Cell phone laws across the U.S.

The first state driving law banning talking on a cell phone while driving was introduced in New York in 2001. Since then, hands-free cell phone laws have been rolled out across the U.S. to enforce safe driving practices and reduce accident rates. Here’s a quick run-down of cell phone laws across the United States:

  • 48 states and the District of Columbia have banned texting and driving for all drivers.

  • 37 states and the District of Columbia prohibit all cell phone use by novice drivers. Some states, such as Louisiana, ban phone use for drivers with learner and intermediate licenses, regardless of age. Once the driver is granted a driver’s license, the handheld ban is lifted.

  • 25 states and the District of Columbia have banned all cell phone use while driving. Some states, such as Arkansas and Florida, have hand-held bans only in school zones and work zones, whereas states like New York and Connecticut have complete bans on handheld cell phone use.

  • 23 states and the District of Columbia prohibit school bus drivers from handheld device use while driving.

Use this interactive map to find mobile device laws specific to your states of operation.

How unsafe phone use while driving hurts your bottom line

The impact of cell phone misuse can be severe and multipronged—organizations whose employees improperly use phones or tablets face penalties from both law enforcement and insurance companies.

Depending on the state, law enforcement can issue fines, impose points on driving records, suspend drivers’ licenses, and even convict drivers of felonies for mobile device use behind the wheel. While the more severe penalties are often reserved for repeat offenders, the cost for first-time offenders is on the rise. In states such as California, the first citation for phone use is a minimum of $162, with a second citation soaring well over $1,000. Other states with less restrictive cell phone laws, such as Texas, have less extreme penalties that range from $50 to $200. When a driver’s CDL is suspended or revoked due to violation of the law, the average cost to replace that driver is more than $8,000.

The risk of using a mobile device while driving compounds for commercial drivers, especially when carrying passengers, heavy loads, or hazardous materials at high speeds. Three states recognize this increased safety threat with specific penalties for cell phone use by commercial drivers including:

  • In New Jersey, public transportation drivers found guilty of cell phone use on the job face up to six months jail time and a $1,000 fine

  • In Oklahoma, commercial drivers convicted of cell phone use while driving face a misdemeanor charge and a $500 fine.

  • In Virginia, passenger-carrying commercial drivers found guilty of texting or talking on the phone face a $2,750 fine

  • See all cell phone penalties by state

When drivers violate the law, they risk incurring rising rates for their employer’s insurance policy. In addition to law enforcement, insurance companies take the risk of distracted driving seriously, imposing substantial insurance rate increases for policy violations. One violation for unsafe cell phone use increases an insurance premium by 23%, or $357, on average. And when a driver is involved in a distracted driving accident and found at fault, the average insurance rate increase is 42%. For fleets, these incremental increases can cost millions and make properly insuring your fleet a challenge.

Best practices to minimize mobile distractions on the road

Ultimately, employee and community safety—not avoiding fines and insurance hikes—should be the goal of building a culture that discourages distracted driving. Through company policies, technology, and programs, organizations can make sure mobile devices are an asset and not a liability to their operations. To keep drivers safe from distractions on their tablets and phones, organizations should consider the following best practices:

Establish company policies that discourage improper device use while driving. 

  • Provide company-managed tablets or smartphones for your employees to better control mobile usage and reduce the need for personal and work notifications that compete for employees' attention on the same device.

  • Require employees to use voice-activated technology, such as Google Assistant for Android devices and Siri for Apple devices, to send text messages, answer phone calls, look up directions, and complete other tasks while driving. 

  • When a task cannot be performed using voice-activated technology alone, require employees to pull over and park the vehicle before using their device.

Prevent distracted driving with technology. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety sees crash avoidance technology as the future of and key to reducing accidents caused by distracted driving due to mobile device use. 

  • Install software that limits access to nonessential apps and settings on devices when employees are operating vehicles in motion. Anti-distracted driving software can block the ability to send text messages and answer calls while restricting the device screen to display only critical apps needed in the moment. 

  • Invest in an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) that detects unsafe mobile usage and helps drivers self-correct in the moment. Real-time in-cab alerts proactively coach drivers when AI dash cams detect signs of distracted driving such as phone use, lane departure, or drowsy driving.

Reinforce safe driving behavior with data-driven coaching and training programs for drivers.

  • Managers can use dash cam footage to coach drivers with examples of unsafe mobile device use or distracted driving. Additionally, managers can celebrate instances of exemplary behavior that drivers can learn from and apply to their practice.

  • Implement a driver scoring system that takes mobile device usage into account to further incentivize safe habits through gamification.

  • When onboarding new drivers, include best practices for safe device usage in your training program. Familiarize drivers with company phone and tablet policies, what safe device usage looks like in-cab, and how your technology works with drivers to keep them safe. 

How Samsara keeps your drivers safe and connected in the cab 

Samsara is built with safety first in mind. Fleet managers can curb unnecessary mobile device usage and distracted driving using Samsara’s unified platform for driver experience and safety. Together, our best-in-class mobile productivity and coaching tools keep drivers safe by limiting distractions and building safe driving habits. 

The Samsara Driver App is designed to keep drivers focused on the road and DOT-compliant, without needing to take their hands off the wheel. The Driver App minimizes unnecessary distractions with smart, simple features, such as automatic screen brightness adjustment based on the time of day and a clean Hours of Service display with easy-to-read clocks that drivers can see while driving. To stay in touch with fleet managers even when they’re behind the wheel, drivers can safely communicate with text-to-speech messaging, which uses the device’s voice assistant to read in-app messages out loud. 

Samsara Mobile Experience Management can help further customize the in-cab experience for driver safety and productivity. With device policies and advanced display settings, like Focus Mode, managers can easily remove distractions from mobile phones and tablets by disabling access to non-essential apps, calling, and texting as well as automatically silencing push notifications when vehicles are in motion.

Equipping drivers with tools designed for the road is a crucial first step to reducing mobile distractions. To further minimize safety risks, fleets should pair Samsara’s easy-to-use, configurable mobile solution with an advanced driver assistance system like AI Dash Cams. 

Samsara Dual-Facing AI Dash Cams detect when your drivers may be distracted and alert them to stay focused in real-time—keeping distracted driving incidents at bay. AI technology can improve safety by analyzing driver behavior to proactively identify and help drivers self-correct risky habits such as mobile usage and inattentive driving. Automated in-cab audio alerts remind drivers to put their phones down and keep their eyes on the road, while safety event video footage and coaching workflows help managers instill safe driving habits at scale. 

To learn more about how AI and Internet-of-Things technology can help you transform driver safety, contact us for a free trial or demo of Samsara’s Connected Operations Cloud today.