Fleet vehicle camera offers driving behavior insights

June 7, 2011 By    

Clip by clip, the powerful and sometimes disturbing videos revealed real-life incidents involving commercial truck drivers as they traveled across the nation’s roadways to reach propane customers.

With split screens showing both the driver’s view of the road and the driver himself sitting behind the wheel, the computer rolled the footage: One truck failed to slow and slammed into the back end of a car; another truck traveling about 30 mph slammed into the back end of a fuel truck as the driver shouted an expletive; one driver nearly hit a woman riding a bicycle in a neighborhood; and another driver lost control of his truck, rolled it and dangled in the cab by his seat belt.

A similar theme played out each time in the short video clips: The truck is traveling in routine fashion at the outset until something goes very wrong. In most cases, the incident occurred because the driver was distracted, drowsy or failed to practice safe-driving techniques. In the past, companies could only ask about the details and causes of these types of incidents. Now there’s visual evidence of the events leading up to them as well as the immediate aftermath. A video event recorder called DriveCam provides 12 seconds of answers.

“The bottom line is we have about 3,000 to 4,000 employees who go out on their own, and we have to rely on them to be safe people,” says Kevin Rumbelow, vice president of operations support for AmeriGas Propane. “DriveCam gives us the insight into their world and how they are behaving, which is very powerful for us.”

First impression
When Rumbelow first heard of DriveCam, he had an immediate negative reaction, thinking a camera installed on the windshield meant Big Brother was watching. But as he learned more about the program and its potential value for AmeriGas – lowering driving risk and reducing collisions and claims costs – his view changed.

“We’re not out there to fire you. We’re there to protect you and the public,” Rumbelow says. “If you can’t be safe, we’ll help you be safe.”

DriveCam has helped AmeriGas reduce recordable events by about 75 percent in the last three years, says Rumbelow, estimating that an accident could cost a company about $100,000 depending on its severity. The nation’s largest retailer continues to deploy DriveCam in blocks of 500 throughout its fleet of 3,000 bobtails, cylinder trucks and beverage trucks – “particularly with these kind of results,” Rumbelow adds. Currently, about half of AmeriGas’ delivery vehicles utilize DriveCam.

Heritage Propane has gotten the same type of results using DriveCam for more than a year now, as the program has reduced collisions by more than 75 percent and risky and dangerous driving by more than 60 percent, says Paul Grady, the company’s incoming president.

Heritage has installed DriveCam in 310 vehicles across its cylinder exchange divisions – which Grady says experience the highest frequency of accidents due to their driving in high-intensity, urban settings – and is in the process of installing another 320 in bobtails and service trucks at retail locations.

“In metropolitan areas, there is a lot of traffic and a lot of roadways. Drivers have to be more aware than any other drivers in the industry,” says Jim Hamilton, incoming senior vice president of sales and operations for Heritage Propane. “Guys are in and out all of the time, making 25 or 30 stops a day, having to make a lot of turns – things that, unfortunately, create accidents.”

The program is not a tool for Big Brother, Grady agrees, noting that Heritage uses DriveCam in managers’ vehicles as well. In addition, the camera only records when triggered by excessive forces, such as hard braking, aggressive swerving or an impact or collision. It captures 12 total seconds of audio and video footage – eight seconds prior to an event and four seconds afterward, simultaneously showing the driver and his view of the road on a split screen. So a manager reviewing a recorded event knows exactly what happened on the road and in the cab.

“Amazing, huh?” Grady says during a video demonstration.

“We are in the delivery business; we have over 4,000 vehicles,” adds Grady, who first saw DriveCam in an airport van during a ski vacation in Colorado. “It’s a core, essential part of what we do. To do it safely is really important.”

Each night, a propane company’s recorded events are uploaded to DriveCam Inc.’s data center in San Diego. The video is reviewed and risky events are scored for severity to provide an overall assessment of driving behavior. Based on its review, DriveCam can recommend a face-to-face coaching session between a propane company’s manager and its driver. A confidential DriveCam website provides online tools for program users and coaches, and propane companies can customize the alerts and information they receive from DriveCam.

“Nothing is more powerful than the driver and manager with the incident in front of them” on the screen, Grady says. “It enables the driver to understand quickly the things they are doing that are risky.”

Rumbelow stresses, “You are wasting your money with DriveCam unless you do thorough coaching. If you don’t do that, you’re never going to improve.”

While DriveCam encourages safe driving and improves driver behavior, the technology also can help absolve a company or reward a driver in a particular incident. One dramatic video shows an AmeriGas driver avoiding an oncoming vehicle that began sliding across an icy road. A woman was behind the wheel, traveling with her baby, Rumbelow says while showing the footage.

“This guy reacted phenomenally fast and prevented these people from being seriously injured,” he adds. “He received an award from AmeriGas. We recognized him for reacting quickly and in a professional way to avoid a collision.”

Driver’s perspective
The nation’s propane retailers rely on drivers such as Jeremy Belanger to deliver fuel safely and without incident to their customers.

Belanger admits he was “a little nervous, a little apprehensive” when Heritage Propane installed DriveCam in his Metro Lift Propane truck about a year ago. The 28-year-old Belanger, based in Milford, Mich., has driven for Heritage’s forklift cylinder exchange division for about three years.

“When I first got the news they were putting them in, I started thinking about all of my bad driving habits. When no one is watching, you don’t think about them,” he says. “At the time, I was under the impression it would be a constant recording, but it’s more of an incident-based recording.”

Drivers were told about DriveCam during a bimonthly safety meeting, so “we weren’t blindsided with it,” recalls Belanger, who drives about 120 to 150 miles per day on mostly city roads, in a truck that transports about 190 propane cylinders.

DriveCam has been triggered several times since it became a fixture in Belanger’s cab. Traveling over potholes has started the camera, but Belanger says he did have one particular incident where he took a corner too sharply and the tr
uck’s rear wheels rode the curb, initiating the camera.

“My particular driving habit was my seat belt,” he adds. “I was hopping in and out of my truck. Sometimes I would forget to put it on, but now since they put in the cameras I don’t even think about it. I jump in and put it on.”

Asked if the camera makes him a better driver, Belanger says with a laugh, “Yeah, as much as it pains me to say that. When the camera first came in, you’re immediately more conscious about what you’re doing. Now, you don’t even think about it.”

Rumbelow says the same adjustment process has taken place at AmeriGas: “Most drivers say they don’t know it’s there anymore. I’ve met with drivers, and I say, ‘Tell me what you don’t like about it.’ If you’re all professional drivers and driving professionally then you don’t have anything to worry about because nothing is going to happen. Normally that calms people down.”

Propane specific
AmeriGas and Heritage are DriveCam’s largest customers in the propane industry. DriveCam is installed in about 2,200 propane industry vehicles, mostly those of the two majors, says Bill Slape, sales executive at DriveCam Inc., who has been calling on the other majors as well. Both companies ran successful pilot programs that heightened their interest in the product.

“It makes a lot of sense in this industry, given what they carry, and also obviously just trying to keep their drivers safe is important for those companies to have it,” Slape says. “It’s pretty clear from the results that it does impact behavior and makes folks drive less aggressively.”

Propane companies of all sizes can utilize DriveCam in their fleets, Slape says, though he notes that bigger fleets “tend to be self-insured, and our program, from an accident and claims cost reduction standpoint, makes a lot of sense for self-insured companies. But we do work with a lot of traditionally insured companies that are looking for ways to keep their exposures down and not have their premiums go up.”

For companies to add DriveCam, they must pay about $1,000 per vehicle in the first year and about $500 per vehicle in subsequent years to stay on the program, Slape notes.

The program continues to evolve, now containing an optional fleet tracking system and a fuel management solution that helps identify speeding and idling violations.

Launched: 1998
Headquarters: San Diego
Employees: More than 100
Usage: Installed in 150,000 vehicles worldwide
Industries: Commercial services, construction, distribution, energy, government, residential services, solid waste, transit, trucking, utilities
Coaching topics: Cell-phone use, texting, seat belts, eating, drinking, speeding, hard cornering, driving too closely to another vehicle or near collision, among others
Bill Slape, DriveCam sales executive, says: “Around 2004-05, we changed our business model and realized bigger fleets didn’t want to hire people to look at clips internally and manage the program. They were looking for a company to do that for them. The market drove this into a service business where we host data and do the back-end analysis for the client. That’s enabled the client to focus on coaching drivers and let DriveCam manage everything else.”
Online (view videos here): www.drivecam.com

Photos courtesy of AmeriGas, DriveCam and Heritage Propane

About the Author:

Brian Richesson is the editor in chief of LP Gas Magazine. Contact him at brichesson@northcoastmedia.net or 216-706-3748.

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