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Truck driver-facing cameras: Point/Counterpoint

Driver-facing cameras are often an unpopular idea with truck drivers. Yet, from an equipment management point of view, video telematics can be very helpful. So, naturally, there’s some debate over whether taking advantage of this technology is worth it.

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The argument against

About a year ago, I interviewed several providers of video telematics solutions about driver-facing cameras, and my conversation with Jim Angel of Trimble surprised me. He took the position that, in most cases, driver-facing cameras simply aren’t worth it for fleets. He said a very small percentage of Trimble’s customers were using them, and that he did not see these cameras becoming widely utilized in the industry.

With more than a year having passed, I wanted to check back with Jim to see if adoption of driver-facing cameras had increased for Trimble, and if he had changed his view about their value.

The answers: they haven’t, and he hasn’t.

“Less than 4% of our customers are using the driver-facing camera,” Angel said. “And one of those customers only uses it as a training mechanism for drivers that seem to have continual problems, so they want to dive a little bit deeper into root cause analysis.”

That 4% number is around the same as it has been in previous years, and Angel said he doesn’t see that changing. Angel’s argument is that the potential benefits of driver-facing cameras do not outweigh the cons—namely, upset drivers who may leave the fleet.

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In this era of the driver shortage, fleets are increasingly prioritizing their drivers—look no further than modern sleepers with all their creature comforts, or the drivers’ lounges found at many fleet and OEM service shops, for example.

“If your boss walked in and asked you to put a camera in the corner of your room that watched you all day, how would you feel? Because that’s unfortunately how we make our drivers feel under those circumstances, even though there’s often good reason for wanting the camera,” he said.

Another benefit of video telematics solutions is the ability to exonerate the driver and the fleet in the event of a not-at-fault accident. But Angel said that, in many cases, having a driver-facing camera can do more harm than good in court.

“We like to say it this way: having a driver-facing camera has never exonerated the driver from the accident,” Angel said. “The conditions of the accident are what exonerates the driver. It’s who pulled in front of who, who ran the red light, etc. If the video can show that the driver’s hands were at 10 and two on the steering wheel and they were looking straight ahead and didn’t have their phone in their hand, that’s great. But if the driver’s sitting at the red light, somebody slams into him, he happens to be holding his 32-ounce Big Gulp at the time, that’s what the plaintiff attorney’s going to make it about. ‘Well, maybe if your driver had been paying attention to what was going on, if he had both hands on the wheel and was looking out the windshield at the time instead of sucking on his long straw, maybe he could have avoided that collision when my client ran into him.’ 

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“And so in that case, did that driver-facing view help you or hurt you? Now, if you didn’t have the driver-facing camera, and the car slams into the side of the truck, you have a pretty clear-cut case on what happened, and it really doesn’t matter what your driver was doing.”

It’s admittedly an extreme example, but Angel noted that this is what many fleets are dealing with in court.

He added that one reason driver-facing cameras aren’t necessary in Trimble’s solution is because of the ECM and telematics data that it provides.

“By looking at this data,” he explained, “We can tell you what the driver’s doing in the cab without looking at the driver. We can tell you what percentage of time his foot is on the accelerator pedal. We can tell you when he hits his brake or the clutch, whether he’s got cruise on, what the RPM is in the truck. We can tell you whether the blinker’s on in a turning incident. We can tell you a lot about what your driver’s doing and we don’t have to see the driver. And We do think that’s a huge difference in our system and maybe why we have a lower take rate on driver-facing cameras, because of the detail in the data that we provide.”

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The argument in favor

Let’s look at the other side of this issue: the argument for driver-facing cameras. The other interviews I conducted for this piece matched up more closely with my expectations going in—most providers of driver-facing cameras were advocates for their products, eager to share the benefits and the experiences of their customers.

Compared to Trimble’s 4% number (see the Argument against side), most other video telematics providers are on the opposite side of the spectrum when it comes to driver-facing cameras—95% of Lytx video telematics users use the driver-facing camera, while 80% to 90% of SmartDrive customers do as well, the companies share.

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There are several factors cited as reasons fleets might be interested in driver-facing cameras. Hans Molin, director of driver assist and automated driving for Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems, highlighted two.

“The first and most recognized is that the fleet can see what is going on in the cab, especially during a critical event,” he said. “This is a common way to learn of unwanted behaviors and help coach drivers to improve their safety performance.

“Second, there is now technology enabling us to visually detect driver or passenger presence. Bendix just showcased a driver and passenger detection system which utilizes real-time machine vision algorithms to detect presence and movement of drivers and passengers. These features can help notify fleets of the presence of an unnecessary passenger or help turn off the in-cab camera when the driver is not in the seat driving, for example. These functions can be further enhanced to monitor for distraction and drowsiness. They can also be used as part of an interlock system like Bendix Intellipark Electronic Parking Brake.”

But, Molin noted, “it is important that the fleet sets up a process for reviewing and using the video properly, as this information can turn into a liability if it is there but not acted upon.”

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Del Lisk, vice president of safety services with Lytx, said that it’s important to have the information on driver behavior so that incidents can be prevented before they even happen.

“Seeing what occurred in the cab during a risky driving event is vital for uncovering the underlying behavior that may have caused it, so it can then be addressed through driver coaching and corrected before it leads to a collision,” Lisk noted. “In many cases, common mistakes such as failing to look both ways at an intersection or checking mirrors inadequately when making a lane change are not intentional acts by drivers, but they have become unconscious habits that some drivers repeat without realizing. These are examples of skill errors that cannot be identified and corrected with video captured through the outside lens alone. 

“Inward-facing cameras also provide an extra layer of security for drivers, who are often falsely blamed for collisions,” Lisk added. “Video captured from an inward-facing lens will verify the condition of the driver and, in the case of a claim against a driver, can provide a strong defense to show he or she was alert and attentive, saving both the driver and fleet from potential litigation and the trouble that comes along with it.”

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According to Jason Palmer, chief operating officer at SmartDrive, without the inward-facing camera, the fleet only has one side of the story.

“Cab-facing cameras allow fleets to understand if the driver acted or reacted appropriately, if they were distracted, sleeping, etc. Having both cameras helps fleets identify, coach and correct unsafe driving habits on a proactive basis. By pinpointing a driver’s areas of improvement, fleets can proactively coach and correct before an incident occurs. On a similar note, it allows fleets to recognize and reward safe driving habits to encourage a stronger safety culture,” he said.

It’s also important to make sure that video telematics solutions aren’t solely used to keep track of negative events.

“Video telematics should drive positive change and a culture of reward and recognition,” said Kevin Aries, head of global product success at Verizon Connect. “It’s not always about policing the bad stuff, but rewarding the good.”

Of course, every fleet is different, and some may decide that they don’t want or need the cab-facing camera, which is why each of these video telematics solutions makes the inclusion of driver-facing video optional.

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The takeaway: Working with drivers is key

No matter how you feel about the idea of driver-facing cameras, the best way to implement them is by prefacing their installation with clear communication to your drivers about what these cameras will capture, how they will work and how this will help not just the fleet, but the driver. SmartDrive’s Palmer provided a three-word summary of how to approach this: “Communicate and educate!”

“As the driver shortage continues,” he went on, “fleets are understanding that a strong safety culture is paramount to not only attracting but retaining top-performing drivers. Prioritizing safety shows the company’s commitment to its culture, underlining how much the company values its drivers and ensuring they return home safely.”

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Palmer went on to say that it’s important to start the conversation with drivers immediately—listen to their concerns, explain the value of video, and get them involved with the process and, hopefully, on board with it.

“You have to be honest and transparent about what you’re trying to accomplish and why,” Trimble’s Angel said. “Be prepared to show the drivers how the device works, what a video clip looks like and when and how it’s triggered.

“Explain why you think it’s important. If a couple of drivers leave because of that system, it’s important to hear them out. And most of all, the number one message for any video system that needs to come back to your drivers is: we are doing this for your protection. Because remember, in a litigation case, when not all the details are available, oftentimes the driver gets fired for that reason. And we have numerous examples of drivers being able to retain their jobs because video showed that it was not their fault.”

Verizon Connect’s Aries also recommended a written policy regarding what is permissible behind the wheel, and what isn’t, before putting the driver-facing cameras in place. This, he said, will give drivers a better understanding of the technology and leave less room for ambiguity and questions.

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A few of our sources shared the reactions of drivers working for fleets who have begun using the driver-facing cameras. 

“Often, drivers are reticent at first, but once they’re aware of the benefits of the program or it has exonerated one of their colleagues, they quickly accept it,” SmartDrive’s Palmer shared. “Once managers explain it’s there to support drivers and corroborate their view to help in exonerations and make them a better and safer driver, they are much more likely to get on board with the idea of cab-facing cameras. In many fleets, drivers begin to ask for cameras and, oftentimes, won’t drive without them.”

“Drivers recognize the great responsibility of driving a corporate vehicle and want to be absolved of wrong-doing when incidents involving their vehicles occur,” Verizon Connect’s Aries said. “They also want to be rewarded when good driving behavior is adhered to. Driver-facing video can give drivers more opportunity to show they can be trusted and are appreciated, and over time they realize video helps with that.”

Lytx’s Lisk said that word of mouth is key for spreading driver understanding and acceptance of this technology. “All it takes is one exoneration within a fleet for drivers to understand the program is designed to help protect them and help them stay safe and excel in their careers.”

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