Friday, January 11, 2013

What’s next, shock collars?

Some people are hellbent on using technology to remove human judgment from truck driving, but where will that leave the industry – and more importantly, the drivers – when technological “solutions” also strip away dignity and common sense?

I have to admit I went on a rant this morning as I pondered an FMCSA-sponsored study of technology that will be used to monitor and assess driver drowsiness. It really got me thinking about the Big Brother aspects of trucking and the continued creep toward generations of undertrained and inexperienced drivers behind the wheel.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration study, fatigue-monitoring technology would use cameras, sensors and other gadgetry in the truck cab designed to react to certain triggers. Perhaps the driver’s eyes are closed or not on the road, or a driver has yawned a few too many times in a given period of time. Perhaps the truck departed its lane or the tires hit a rumble strip.

When the technology – or someone monitoring it – picks up on the signs, the driver of the truck is hit with an alarm bell, a seat vibration or a puff of cool air in the face intended to snap that person awake.

Many of us have done things like this voluntarily when we are tired behind the wheel – we open a window, we crank the stereo, we sing loudly, we get more coffee and press on. The difference between that and a fatigue-monitoring system is that it’s someone else or a gadget taking away the person’s judgment. (That judgment, by the way, should involve pulling over to rest if you find yourself singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” while shrugging violently and slapping your own cheeks to stay awake).

Do we really need a gadget or someone on the other end of a camera to tell when a driver is tired? And, more importantly, what assurances can the FMCSA give us that carriers will not use these technologies to harass drivers into driving even when they’re in need of a break?

We can see a couple of scenarios playing out.

One scenario, and we’ll call it the ideal one, a driver receives an alert after closing his eyes a little too long for the gadget’s liking. He’s tired and needs to get off the road, and his carrier calls to make sure he’s OK and encourages him to take a break.

The second scenario, one that we can foresee happening, is that a driver is tired and wants to pull off, but the device keeps “reviving” him and he stays on the road. Perhaps the carrier or dispatcher scolds the driver to keep going, saying the load has to get there yesterday or he’s going to be punished or fired. He has no choice but to fight through.

How long can a driver like that hold on, stretched to the limit? Will this scenario create a new breed of driver, one that is perpetually tired but uses the alarm bells and puffs of air to triumph over circadian rhythm?

These are the things I think about when I hear that technology is being used to monitor drowsy driving.

It’s much like an EOBR – an electronic logging device that has no regard for human judgment related to being tired or fatigued. As long as there’s time on the clock for that driver, the carrier or dispatcher can harass that driver into fighting through tiredness or fatigue.

Some carriers are already monitoring their drivers using in-cab cameras and other technologies. They get to monitor productivity while keeping tabs on their workforce. They want those wheels turning, sometimes at all costs.

“Keep moving, driver. We don’t care if you’re fatigued. You have time on the clock and we’re going to blast you with puffs of air and ring bells in your ears until the feeling passes. And if that isn’t enough, we’ve got a shock collar set up to make sure the load crosses the finish line.”

And some people wonder why there’s a so-called “driver shortage.”

What happens when law enforcement gets a hold of crash data that clearly shows a carrier had forced a tired driver to continue driving?

It’s a fair question.