Telematics needs time-investment to make it work, says fleet expert John Davidge. It is not the silver bullet companies sell it as.

If you are like me you seem to get a never ending stream of emails and adverts promising that the latest, whizziest magic black box from the BTSSB Company (Best Thing Since Sliced Bread Company) will solve all of our motoring problems for a mere modest fee… if only that were true! Can it really make my black car stay clean all winter, or make me coffee on demand? Unlikely!

No, let’s be serious now. Let’s start with a few simple facts:

  • There simply is no ‘Magic Silver Bullet’ that is going to be the answer to all of your prayers – and we need to develop a touch of reality and understanding, as well as a healthy scepticism
  • At its simplest a telematics device is nothing more than a box of electronics to monitor and record activities and then to transmit data. It takes note, on a timed basis, the movements and activities of the vehicle – and it can (models vary!) highlight any activities that step outside certain decided parameters, then let us know about the ‘exceptions’ – or all of the activities
  • Some will notify us of those exceptions in a variety of different ways
  • While most devices can display findings results on a website, the way in which results are displayed and communicated varies hugely and the ‘user friendliness’ is a big consideration

What do you need to know?

One of the first questions must be ‘What do you need/want to know – and why?’ Or expressed otherwise, what is the problem you want/need to solve? (I find myself sceptical of anyone who tells me that ‘this device can tell you anything you want it to!’  Is my coffee ready yet?!)

For example, some emergency services vehicles’  ‘Journey Data Systems’ can identify at any given point, which gear is in use, at what speed the vehicle was travelling, whether the blue lights, sirens or indicators were in use and for how long. That may be appropriate in a relatively high-risk environment such as an ‘emergency response’ journey with high speeds and a greater volume of risky manoeuvres; but with a fleet of say 1,000 vehicles it’s clear that a huge mountain of data can be accumulated very quickly if all such parameters are recorded – in turn leading to concerns about how and where it is stored and who pays for the storage facility. Hence the question – ‘what do you really want/need to know?’ and in turn, ‘what are you planning to do with the information you accumulate?’ And of course, ‘how simple is it for me to interpret the displayed information’ without hours of work?

Online Driver Training

Will it lead to change?

Next, consider as a driver how you might drive along a road which is visibly monitored by average speed cameras. Their presence means that most of us are very careful to stay within the speed limits for that road. Conversely if there are signs showing ‘Speed cameras not in use’ (what on earth is the value of such signs?), isn’t it better to encourage due care, rather than to tempt drivers to ignore them?!)? Consider how most drivers would react – and why? Or if a fixed camera is visibly damaged (burnt and blackened), isn’t it common for some to simply ignore the speed limits?  It’s clear that the effect of a speed camera depends on a likely consequence – breaking the speed limit will invariably lead to punishment, for example.

For any electronic driver monitoring system the effectiveness also depends on some consequence – which in turn depends on identifying any action beyond what you consider as permitted/accepted.  What must you do to identify transgressors? If it is necessary to trawl through a wealth of information to find out what you want to know, do you actually have the resources to carry out that search, and how often? Or is the display simple and obvious to all who may use it?

Consider how you might identify the driver on a multi-user vehicle – not easy in some environments.

How do your drivers know they’re not getting it right?

Similarly how might the driver become aware of his transgressions – some systems have a visual or audible warning, with the benefit of immediate awareness of the unacceptable (although that might be seen by some as distracting, it is equally beneficial to gain compliance more promptly) compared with a line manager interview some weeks or months later.

When you are personally driving, do you exceed speed limits? Do you brake harshly? We all do at times – albeit generally infrequently. All human beings lose attention at times. Surely what is more important and relevant is when a driver is regularly, repeatedly going ‘beyond the acceptable’ –indicative of a less appropriate driving pattern which increases the risks of collisions and accelerates vehicle wear patterns and fuel use. If you are seeking to pick out regular patterns of excess speed and sharp braking because that is a problem with your drivers, this may be easily possible (subject of course to how exceptions are identified by any particular system) and in turn makes any remedial actions easier to initiate.

However, if you know that you have a problem with unacceptable levels of reversing collisions, let’s consider the driver error that leads to such collisions. Is it excessive speed, or harsh braking? Unlikely. Almost all reversing impacts follow observation failures – not looking, not looking properly, or not looking at the right time. No affordable electronic system yet in use can identify and validate driver observation skills in relation to the surrounding circumstances – telematics therefore will not identify the failures and stimulate compliance. Telematics does not work in respect of reversing and manoeuvring errors, while a good training session with an experienced professional trainer can give a substantially better return on investment.

Hence in considering an electronic monitoring system there are many questions to be answered and it is essential to ascertain just what you need to know and how it can be used to gain the benefit you seek. Some drivers, for example will swear that there’s nothing at fault with their driving, and that ‘the system is at fault’ (let’s be honest, with any device that can happen – but more often it will require a professional trainer’s assistance to help the driver to understand and recognise his faults – his level of ‘unconscious incompetence’ or faulty auto-pilot, before remedial work can start, and this must be planned in also).  How will you identify a faulty device or an ineffective driver?

Telematics needs the human touch

Telematics devices on their own do not work – they are simply a tool to help the wise operator to know in more relevant detail what is happening, in order to identify and take some sort of remedial actions. You must be prepared to take promptly the actions that are necessary to make the system work – a key essential is identifying the abilities of any chosen system to highlight clearly, simply and effectively any unacceptable patterns of behaviour so that it permits you to take actions (to implement recognised consequences). Without consequences, a telematics system is comparable to a burnt-out or inoperable speed camera – identified transgression and consequence is essential to make it work.

Conversely, when there is a system in place or device that identifies a driver (or group of drivers) whose behaviour sits outside ‘acceptable norms’ there is a strong onus on a fleet operator to do something effective – that is to ‘ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable’ that nobody is harmed.

Failing to act on clear indications that certain drivers continue to exhibit behaviours are unacceptable, followed by serious injury to others will almost certainly lead to the ‘lead balloon’ effect, with very significant fines or penalties that reflect the lack of actions that could have prevented such injuries from happening. After all, the clear principle of all safety programmes is to seek out areas of risk and to take positive actions that will prevent that risk and avoid harm to others. ‘Not realising that something is going wrong’ is not good and inevitably leads to consequences, but failing to take note of what ought to have been clearly obvious will add multipliers to penalties as outlined in the Safety Sentencing Guidelines. Driving at work is just the same – seeking to recognise risks and to avoid harm from the outset is a clear message for all conscientious employers.

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John Davidge is Head of Fleet Technical at Cardinus Risk Management. John served for 15 years policing the roads as an officer, where he saw the results of driving errors firsthand. He holds the National General Certificate from the National Examining Board in Occupational Safety and Health.

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