By K C Pawling, Road Safety and Loss Prevention Specialist

The National Safety Council sent an email notification that April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month.  I thought, hey, this is a great topic for my safety short article this month! But . . . okay, I’ll admit it, I’m distracted!  Just doing a little bit of interweb research has led me down a few different rabbit trails. I am discovering that I am fascinated by anything related to driving, articles, statistics, methods of driving, the Smith System, and even G.O.A.L. (I’ll say more about those last two in a minute).

The Public Risk Management Association tells us that automobile crashes account for roughly one-third of all public entity liability claims. I cannot confirm or deny that statistic, but what I can attest to is the fact that in the past five years here at NIRMA, vehicle incidents and accidents have consistently remained in the top six leading causes of claims. The term “vehicle” includes automobiles, motor graders, dozers, and other means of motorized transport.

Driving distractions typically fall into one of three categories: visual, manual, or cognitive.  Visual distractions include: looking at a phone screen, a radio, or anything else we see inside or outside the vehicle that draws our attention from the task at hand of operating the vehicle we are in. Manual distractions include: dialing or texting on the phone, changing the radio station, interacting with passengers, eating, or picking up objects that have fallen to the floor of the vehicle.  The last category, cognitive distractions, is often overlooked because we tend to believe that a distraction has to be a physical object. Some examples of cognitive distractions are “hands free” phone calls, listening to podcasts, or the disagreement that we may have with our spouse before leaving for work. Cognitive distraction would be anything that takes us to a different place in our mind, rather than paying attention to our physical location and the task of operating a vehicle. Some might even call it daydreaming.

I think we can all relate to the distractions that we are typically exposed to while we are operating automobiles, but what about those while we are operating heavy equipment?  For me, I found the one piece of equipment that caused me the most cognitive distractions was the motor grader.  My mind has a bad habit of moving quickly.  Mix that with a slow-moving machine at the speed of 5 or 6 miles per hour, and it is a recipe for serious daydreaming.

Motor graders are very complex machines, and there can be so many adjustments being made while driving that an operator can get caught up in tunnel vision.  This happens when intensely focusing on operating the machine correctly and effectively, to the point that all other environmental factors are closed out of your mind or ignored. Generally, this is not intentional.  It is something that tends to happen the most while learning to operate the machine.

So, what are some things we can do to combat distracted driving?  Well, the easy things would be to put down the phone, stop eating in the car and get the radio adjusted before you start driving.  If the children in the backseat become an issue, pull over somewhere and take care of them after you are safely stopped. Do not reach back while driving, causing you to be visually, manually, and cognitively distracted all at once.

When operating heavy equipment, take time occasionally to stop, get out, and walk around the machine. Stretch your legs and get some fresh air. When I was a highway superintendent, I reminded the operators this is also a good way to get a good ground-level visual of the work you are doing. If you stop and walk around the machine, give it a good visual check while you are stopped. Look for low tires or any fluid leaks that may have developed from the time you did your pre-trip inspection back at the yard.

Two techniques I discovered while learning to operate tractor-trailer (semi) trucks are the Smith System and G.O.A.L.

The Smith System has five principles.  1) Aim High in Steering.  This refers to looking further down the road, so you’re not just focusing directly in front of your vehicle or machine.  This will give you time to react to any situations that you may need to avoid.  2) The Big Picture.  The big picture refers to being aware of your entire surroundings, not just what is in front of you.  3) Keep your eyes moving.  Check your mirrors every three to five seconds. This will keep you from falling into a cognitive distraction, and will also help you with principle number two, being aware of your surroundings.  4) Leave Yourself an Out.  If you are aware of your surroundings, you are able to leave yourself some room to properly react to avoid an obstacle or hazard, should one arise. For example, if you are approaching an intersection at the same time as another vehicle you may need to slow down or even stop if they fail to see you. 5) Make Sure They See You.  Eye contact is a great way to avoid many vehicular incidents. Whether you’re out working on a project, or just driving through the yard with co-workers walking around your machine, making eye contact with those around you is a great way of confirming they see you.

G.O.A.L. is a very simple concept that takes just a little physical effort, but it’s very effective.  Get Out And Look. The concept is generally applied while doing backing maneuvers. These might be done in courthouse parking lots, road department yards, and project job sites.  As simple as it is, not many people practice it, even though it would avoid so many claims.

The last thing I want to mention to combat distracted driving situations would be to take the free defensive driving course that is offered by NIRMA.  This is a course that could protect us from drivers other than ourselves that may be distracted.  NIRMA has three very qualified instructors in the Loss Prevention Department. This course is designed to help you with defensive driving techniques to keep employees safe, decrease the risk of collisions and traffic violations, and minimize exposure to liability risks. Defensive driving can also lower the cost of accident claims by minimizing the severity of accidents, which decreases vehicle repair bills and the need for replacement vehicles.

If you are interested in the defensive driving course, or you have any other subject that we can help you with, do not hesitate to contact us.  I can be reached at or 402-310-4417.  Let’s make sure we all make it home every night.