Minding the Store

All of us come across good ideas. Sometimes we even have our own. More often we hear or read about them. Occasionally they fall into our laps. The latter happened to me just last week while attending a trade show.

I had a short chat with the sales representative of an event recorder named SmartDrive. A competitor of also-San Diego-based DriveCam, SmartDrive effectively records the driver, the roadway and/or other objects or perspectives, depending on the camera positions selected and the parameters to be observed. Like most such devices, the hard drive can be programmed to overwrite events when the hard drive fills up or at other prescribed intervals. Otherwise, the device can be programmed to store certain observations triggered by a benchmark event – such as the vehicle encountering a bump or pothole, or phenomena like “lane drift” (e.g., from a driver dozing off at the wheel).

Minding the Store

Aware of the double-edged sword that video recording presents as an evidentiary matter, I asked this representative what he thought about the two most commonly-cited reasons for not installing such equipment: (a) Potential liability, and (b) the time needed to review the information the equipment captures. Recognizing the depth and range of information obtainable from such technology, I also asked how it could be organized so that management might streamline the review of events other than those triggered by a mildly unusual or traumatic occurrence. Our dialog went something like this:

Q: Do any of your customers actually use the data for monitoring purposes?
A: Sure. Lots of them do.
Q: Where do your customers find the time?
A: They do not.
Q: They do not what?
A: They do not have any time for this.
Q: You mean they pay for all this stuff and never look at what it shows and tells them?
A: No. We do it for them.
Q: You do what for them?
A: We review the data and evaluate the findings.

As it turns out, this company has a small staff that reviews the data its customers’ devices record. This staff’s familiarity with both the technology and the slice of operating reality it captures enables them to effectively “fast-forward” to the highlights – or lowlights. Because ineffective monitoring is often the Achilles Heel of public transportation as a liability matter, I was encouraged to learn that some operating entities were paying attention to it – even if they were assigning much of the responsibility for it to a third party.

In my operating days, contracting out this responsibility was unthinkable. But in certain areas, and particularly with the technology currently available, doing this is not such a bad idea. Staff familiar with both the tools and the objects of their observation may be more efficient in reviewing the data, and more knowledgeable about what the findings represent. So they may be able to not only streamline the cost of monitoring specific behavior and occurrences, but also enhance the significance of the findings. Particularly with driver conduct juxtaposed against its results (i.e., the driver might be displayed in one corner of the screen, while the area that the vehicle is approaching is displayed, simultaneously, in another corner), technical staff tuned into specific subjects might be better able to identify and attribute significance to certain sets of phenomena than would be operating staff who might be more familiar with operations and individual drivers in general, but less familiar with particular subjects (e.g., indicators of fatigue). In Smart Drive’s case, staff reviewers categorized driver behavior according to an index of variables it developed, and identified and summarized the extremes of behavior recorded (typically for either the worst drivers or those whose behavior fell below the review team’s standards in specific areas). As a consequence, the customer could periodically (or perhaps immediately when behavior was critically deficient) review the essence of the most problematic episodes – such as a dozing driver awakened by vibrations when his or her vehicle encountered a rumble strip.

To Record or Not to Record

This evidentiary conundrum is hard to dismiss as a liability matter. I myself believe that recording driver behavior and performance will generally benefit safe operators, yet can create a liability sink-hole for unsafe ones. I doubt any underwriters have stratified damage awards according to such variables, and I wonder if one even could given the variety of factors that play into the win, loss or settlement of a lawsuit. Regardless, four compelling reasons for event recording come immediately to mind:

  1. If nothing else, recording operates as a deterrent to poor conduct and performance.
  2. Fewer incidents translate into fewer lawsuits – even if this trade-off comes at the expense of making those lawsuits that remain more problematic.
  3. Safe operators should be rewarded, and collecting proof of safe performance is a means of accomplishing this should a lawsuit arise.
  4. Preventing accidents and incidents is valuable in and of itself even apart from its impact on liability.

 These benefits can yield tasty fruits. But these fruits will ripen only if the entity recording conduct and performance examines the results thoroughly and knowledgeably.

Evaluation and Education

Apart from providing the evidence to terminate the employment of the worst drivers, collecting and sorting data also provides a valuable training tool. When the deviations are mild enough to not warrant outright termination, showing drivers examples of less-than-optimal driving by their peers can help sharpen their performance – not to mention the constructive paranoia that comes from knowing one’s conduct and performance are being monitored, much less studied.

As a legal footnote, the responsibilities of a common carrier would almost certainly trump the rights to privacy otherwise protected by FERPA regulations, the Privacy Act and other regulatory mechanisms to curb abuses related to the inappropriate use and sharing of personal information. Embarrassing a driver caught picking his nose on tape might fall under the latter category. But showing a driver nodding out as his vehicle sways back and forth on the roadway would likely not.

To Contract or Not Contract

With no disrespect to William Shakespeare, to contract out or not contract out is not the question. The question is whether or not at least somebody should be minding the store. The answer is that someone clearly should be. The debate over whom this person should be may be trivial. But the issue of whether or not someone should be doing this is not even a debate. It is a no-brainer.

As a believer in, and advocate of, regular log review (see “Reviewing Drivers’ Logs” in National Bus Trader, May, 2002), I feel strongly that regularly monitoring driver conduct and performance is critical to safety. As a liability matter, its absence not only leads to incidents, but may suggest an indifference to safety altogether. The striking virtuosity of modern technology, and a growing knowledge of its application, provide opportunities for observing conduct and performance that were fuzzy day-dreams only two decades ago.

As a consultant, I have been both disappointed and alarmed by how rarely consultants seem to be employed to evaluate both system safety and system performance. But I also acknowledge the costs of having consultants undertake such activities. In contrast, the availability of technology developers’ mid- and lower-level staff to monitor and evaluate the conduct and performance captured by their products offers new possibilities for conducting such efforts cost-effectively. It also presents new opportunities for conducting certain efforts better – at least in some narrowly-focused areas.

Contract monitoring may not be for everyone. It is doubtful that contracting out the monitoring of every aspect of operations would be prudent or even cost-effective. But contracting out the monitoring of some aspects of operations is an approach worth considering. It is also an approach available, in one form or another, to every operator from a single-vehicle owner-operator to the largest, multi-national mega-company.

As regular NBT readers know, I recently completed a nine-installment series (“Buying Tomorrow’s Buses Today”) where I argued strongly in favor of purchasing new equipment – and particularly in favor of purchasing options that optimize safety and reduce liability exposure. But I also characterized these purchases as investments. As a matter of prudence and common sense, an important element of investing in top-of-the-line equipment is to invest, similarly, in efforts to milk the greatest number of benefits from its use.

As any stock owner knows, one makes money from investments by keeping track of their performance, and the conduct of those in charge of it. In the investment world, one can mitigate the extremes of these risks, to some degree, by “diversifying his portfolio.” But it is obviously better if every element in that portfolio performs as well as it could. As Mark Twain put it, “Only a fool is afraid to put all his eggs in one basket. A wise man puts all his eggs in one basket and watches the basket.”

Publications: National Bus Trader.