The ugly truth about screens and driving

Screen Shot 2021 06 28 At 3 39 52 Pm Headshot

When Overdrive covered an incident where a driver got caught red-handed looking at a tablet propped up on a steering wheel, the comments and reader feedback were nearly unanimous -- It's no longer a question of if professional drivers have seen this happen, but how often, how they react, and if they do it themselves. 

A subsequent poll looked more closely at the phenomenon, with almost one in ten respondents even admitting to some form of handheld-screen use. 

But first, some good news: 301 out of 429 respondents thoroughly rejected the practice, either saying it's "a danger to all" that they just try to steer clear of when they see it (41%), or that it's a danger that they try to stop (29%). 

After that, though, it gets a little troubling. Around 13%, or 57 individuals, said pretty much everyone does it. About 9%, or 37 individuals, said watching videos or otherwise using handheld screens "can be OK under certain circumstances." Another 34 voters responded "Other," with an option to comment. Only four did. (What gives?) 

This author won't lecture professional drivers on their behavior at the wheel, and it's clear from this poll that the wide majority of professional drivers soundly reject the practice.

But it's worth looking at evolving attitudes, and some of the very fair criticisms drivers level toward shippers demanding photos and communications while they're on the road, law enforcement driving around with open laptops mounted to the dash, and the general driving public, as unrestrained as ever in their bad behaviors behind the wheel. 

Are we actually even trying to eliminate screen time while driving?

First, some practical concerns and a great point from a commenter on the original story: "I would think the glare would be blinding in the dark. My ELD is mounted and I have to close it at night because when I hit bumps, it comes on and stays on until I turn it off. I dim all lights, GPS, radio, dashcam."

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How can any driver pay attention to the road with the bright light of a screen shining in their eyes? Blue lights from screens disrupt sleep cycles and lead to poor health outcomes for drivers. Anyway, here's what the dashboard looks like for the people charged with enforcing this no-screens rule. 

police cruiser interior screensI count at least three screens in this picture. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Just for fun, let's look at the interior of some of the more futuristic truck concepts, and pay special attention to how they use screens.

tesla semi screensThe cockpit of the Tesla Semi, during what Tesla called a demo of a "standard trip," shows three bright screens on through the night on what was purported to be a 500-mile run.Tesla

Now let's look at Peterbilt's idea of a futuristic truck. Note the digital dash. 

Peterbilt SuperTruck InteriorPeterbilt's SuperTruck II concept features at least four screens, but two of them are replacements for what otherwise would be mirrors mounted outside the cab.Peterbilt

If drivers can even realistically claim today that they don't use screens while driving, with the way truck cab design is heading, far fewer will be able to in the future. 

For clarity, we're referring to prohibited "texting or using hand-held mobile phones [or other devices] while operating their vehicles," which the FMCSA says makes "the odds of being involved in a safety-critical event" 23.2 times greater -- not just running a mandatory ELD or having a GPS on the dash. 

[Related: Driver caught using tablet at highway speeds on I-80]

Operators report constant screen violations

Next, something of a horror story about how widespread the problem has become. The drivers described below aren't just running screens with work-related data, but actually watching movies for entertainment. 

"Saw three trucks last week early in the morning, around 2-3, on my way to Seattle on I-90 , in which drivers were watching movies while driving. One in Montana had his tablet on the corner of the dashboard off to the left side of the steering wheel, two in Wyoming, one driver had it mounted on the visor, the second one attached under the ELD."

Here, another commenter, this one responding to the poll, describes a widespread problem:

"I see it dozens of times a night on I-81/I-78 in Pa. It's a sad shift in the culture of drivers. I truly believe the reason the driver culture is so bad is because years ago everyone was out here because they wanted to be out here driving trucks. It was a choice, a lifestyle that you lived and breathed. Sadly today that is a very small amount of the drivers out here."

This comment gets into the root of the problem: Why do drivers need to be entertained at work? Why couldn't the Overdrive Radio podcast (played from a hands-free device), among so many other options for audio entertainment, be good enough? "A driver doesn't have any business watching a movie/video while driving. If one needs to entertain self, stop driving. I would inform the appropriate authority to stop a potential crime."

The ugly truth

Finally, let's look at one brave commenter who admitted to sometimes using handheld screens, just a little bit, in a way that the operator felt didn't seem so bad while driving. 

"I'll admit I have done it...... Sorta. I have occasionally put something on YouTube and placed the phone in an area where I can't see the screen, just have the sound streaming through the radio while I listen. To me it's just like using Sirius or listening to an audiobook. I would NEVER actually watch the screen over the road." (A tip: Overdrive Radio is availalable in this format, dear reader.)

This driver isn't saying they straight-up prop up a tablet on the steering wheel and watch Netflix, as may have been the case on I-80 not too long ago, but implies a technical breaking of the proverbial rules of the road.

The FMCSA could issue "civil penalties up to $2,750 and driver disqualification for multiple offenses" for handheld device use that's caught, but a quick look at drivers' social media feeds shows plenty of filming behind the wheel. Indeed in the reach for social media stardom, quite a few drivers have reached over and shot some video while rolling. 

Overdrive's 2022 3-10-truck division Small Fleet Champ Chris Porricelli, owner of CAP Trucking, said that pressure to use phones while driving doesn't just come from boredom or the drive to get TikTok-famous. 

"As far as having to prove you got loaded, taking pictures of paperwork, screenshooting GPS locations, brokers tend to harass you tenfold for those things," he said.  "I think in a commercial vehicle [there's] not much you can do to stop it. Obviously, the DOT has implemented hefty fines, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really discourage drivers. They just get slicker with it. It's causing a lot of accidents, and I don't really know how you can stop it."

The problem of distracted driving, or using handheld screens while rolling, is in reality much more multi-faceted than it's often made out to be. It's something nearly every driver has to contend with. Also, there are big problems with enforcement, with some regs forcing screens up onto the dashboard and uneven policing of the laws that are on the books. That driver who was busted on camera looking at a handheld screen got off with a warning, only getting cited for failure to maintain the lane. 

Has a broker or customer ever pressured you to engage in dangerous driving activity like using a handheld device while behind the wheel?  Get in touch with Alex Lockie directly to inform further reporting.

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