Trends—December 2010

A Cellular Distraction Exposes DOT’s Blind Spot

When U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently took one hand off the Department of Transportation (DOT) steering wheel long enough to field another call about the dangers of cell phone use while driving, freight industry outsiders were eavesdropping. Truth be told, they’d prefer riding shotgun, even at their own risk.

Over the past two years, government efforts to make public roads safer and more efficient have largely translated into prettier cityscapes— at the expense of U.S. roads, bridges, and taxpayers. Secretary LaHood’s latest crusade against mobile communication leaves truckers and shippers wondering what additional legislation, restrictions, and costs are heading their way.

To date, eight states prohibit drivers from using handheld cell phones while motoring and 30 have bans on text messaging. No states currently restrict both handheld and hands-free cell phone use for drivers, though a few have such provisions for school bus and probationary drivers. Could owner-operators be next?

LaHood has publicly stated that he is committed to spending the time and resources necessary to fix this widespread scourge— specifically exploring technologies such as Zoomsafer and tXtBlocker that detect when a user is in a moving vehicle and scramble cell phone signals.

“The technology is there, and I think you’re going to see it become adaptable in automobiles to disable cell phones. We need to do a lot more if we’re going to save lives,” LaHood shared in an interview with MSNBC.

LaHood has called distracted driving an “epidemic” and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that 5,000 people a year, or about .001 percent of the U.S. population, die as a result of it.

In 2009, however, the NHTSA found highway fatalities dropped to their lowest levels since the 1950s. LaHood applauded that announcement, but vowed he “would not rest” until the roads were even safer.

“Am I on a rampage?” LaHood asked in February 2010. “Yes, I am— and why shouldn’t I be?”

For starters, a number of factors distract drivers. Talking and texting on cell phones is a big one; but applying makeup, using a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system, eating and drinking, changing CDs, adjusting the radio, and reading are also common offenders, according to the NHTSA and Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

Any government effort to rewire the way humans think and emote, see and hear, relate with passengers, negotiate traffic, and gulp coffee while alternating between easy listening and hard rock, is impossible— not that it won’t try.

Operating handheld cell phones while driving is a major safety concern— and shouldn’t be slighted. To LaHood’s credit, the DOT recently launched an online advertising campaign, “Faces of Distracted Driving,” to scare drivers safe by exposing the consequences of bad motoring habits.

Marketing deterrents have their place. But the real issue isn’t about relying on cell phone software solutions to force human behavior, as LaHood suggests; it’s really about changing and perhaps enabling better driver behavior through education and enforcement— and using technology in a proactive and supportive way to facilitate that end.

One challenge law enforcement across North America faces is applying local rules to a national problem, and among different types of motorists. Compliance is key, but not without obstacles.

Consider this:

  • A new Oklahoma state law makes it a traffic violation for teens to operate handheld electronic devices while driving. But it’s OK for adults to do so. Since the new law took effect in November 2010, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol is tasked with mandating compliance. Because it’s a state statute, however, cities and municipalities have little leverage enforcing local traffic offenses and penalties.
  • In Cumberland, Md., the prohibition of handheld cell phone use by state drivers is expected to bring compliance among law enforcement personnel as well. “We want our troopers to comply with the law whether on-duty or off-duty, unless they are involved in an emergency situation,” says Capt. James Pyles, Maryland State Police, western troop commander. “We want our troopers to be examples of safe driving.”
  • In October 2009, Ontario, Canada, enacted legislation to ban handheld cell phones, texting, and truckers’ Citizen Band Radios (CBs). Authorities insist CBs present a particular challenge because the receiver and communication units are separate from each other and connected by a cord. The government plans to phase out CBs and similar radios over the next three years, assuming that two-way, hands-free technologies are developed within that time, according to the Ontario Trucking Association.

Across the United States and Canada, mobile communication restrictions are growing. That’s a good thing. The problem is, rules vary by state, province, and country— and among different users— so compliance is patchy at best. And there has been little discourse as to what such restrictions might mean for the trucking industry down the road.

Real-time communication is a necessity for truckers, many of whom have years of experience using CBs and, more recently, cell phones and dashboard technologies to receive and send information that helps them efficiently manage pickups and deliveries. Communication devices aren’t simply a diversion; they are part of the job.

The trucking industry already goes to great lengths vetting new drivers as part of the Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010 initiative. This includes educating and training drivers on safety best practices and technologies.

Technology plays a major role as a safety enabler, less so as a mandate. User retention is likely to benefit as much from education as enforcement. And a cottage industry has grown up around hands-free communication applications, with new innovations continuing to emerge beyond broadband Bluetooth.

For example, Newark, N.J.-based developed a mobile phone application,, that reads text messages and emails audibly in real time and automatically responds without users having to touch their phones.

But would this innovative technology be relevant if the DOT has its way?

Secretary LaHood’s “rampage” on the dangers of distracted driving is important— as are transportation infrastructure investment and carbon emissions reductions, among other concerns. But there needs to be balance and perspective.

From a public safety perspective, the DOT’s advocacy has merit— as long as there is accord across public and private sectors, and law enforcement has the capacity to broadly “enforce” compliance. Any effort to change behavior on U.S. highways should do just that.

Otherwise, government is switching lanes too fast and ignoring yet another important blind spot.

Air Cargo Security Takes a Screen Test

In light of the recent Yemeni terrorist attempts to bring down U.S.-bound airplanes, shippers, carriers, freight forwarders, and consignees need to be aware of proposed federal air cargo screening requirements, according to a memorandum from ComSec International, a Dallas-headquartered cargo screening services and consultation company.

The Air Cargo Security Act recently proposed by Representative Edward J. Markey (D-MA) extends the 100-percent screening requirement currently mandated for cargo being shipped on passenger flights to include all air cargo —whether shipped on cargo freighters or on scheduled passenger service.

“Historically, the air cargo industry has been dominated by the creation and management of complex scheduling activities and the safe, efficient, and effective operation of aircraft in long-haul transit,” says Jason Watson, a cargo security consultant and co-founder of ComSec.

“Experience suggests that stopping terrorist activity in the air cargo component of the supply chain calls for an innovative solution from the private sector that ties directly into the highly collaborative end-to-end cargo transportation system,” he adds.

Under the Markey bill, the Department of Homeland Security is being directed to address three key areas of dedicated air cargo shipping:

1. Creating a set of regulations for screening 100 percent of cargo transported on all-cargo aircraft within three years, and achieving 50 percent of all cargo being screened within 18 months of the legislation’s passage.

2. Establishing a system for the regular inspection of shipping facilities, and associated security procedures for the handling of air cargo transported on all-cargo planes to ensure that appropriate security controls, systems, and protocols are being used.

3. Developing arrangements with government authorities of foreign countries to ensure that inspections are conducted regularly at shipping facilities for cargo being transported by air to the United States.

But not all industry players agree that a 100-percent cargo scanning initiative will be effective. Some perceive that regulation will only harm international trade.

“Killing the airfreight industry with draconian security procedures gives terrorists a result they long to see,” says Andrew Traill, managing partner of England-based Shippers’ Voice, a leading advocate for global importers and exporters.

“The most effective way to detect and deter anyone intending to use air freight to carry out an attack is through intelligence,” he notes. “Regulations in the United States and Europe now require information about the freight —its origin and destination, the people handling it, and its route —to be sent in advance of its arrival.

“This means, in practice, that most air cargo carriers will not take off before being sure that the freight they carry has been cleared by security authorities,” Traill adds.

Enabling people in the supply chain to perform security checks and maintain security is not a weakness of security but a strength, he concludes.

SCM a Big Buy For U.S. Retailers

Supply chain management (SCM) is a key driver for retailers trying to survive the economic downturn, according to a report by Auburn University and the Retail Industry Leaders Association. Their 2010 State of the Retail Supply Chain study brings together leading North American retailers to examine the year’s current trends, leading practices, and foremost issues affecting retail supply chain strategies and planning.

The report reveals that efforts to reduce bottom-line costs, while the recession held top-line growth in check, has led to the growing importance of SCM throughout the retail organization while gaining C-suite recognition. CEOs are beginning to understand that SCM is critical to retailer success as it expands up- and downstream within the organization to merchandising and store operations functions.

Looking ahead, the study cites several key issues that should be on the radar of SCM executives, including sustainability, fluctuating fuel costs, new government regulations, streamlining multi-channel supply chain operations, and utilizing the latest technological advancements.

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