AP NEWS

No game: Comcast reduces technician accidents with texting simulator

May 5, 2019

Comcast technician Albert Martinez has his smartphone in his right hand, a steering wheel in his left and the dashboard of a 1967 Ford Mustang in front of him. His eyes flick from the phone to the road ahead, and the results of his divided attention are not good.

Martinez is having a hard time maintaining his speed. He doesn’t always stay in his lane. And he occasionally bangs the car into a guardrail or another car, which would be a real shame if this sweet, classic ride was real.

Fortunately for Martinez, he’s piloting a simulator, so the crumpled metal that appears on the ’Stang’s hood is made up only of pixels. And fortunately for other drivers, he’s not out on the road, but sitting in an office on Comcast’s northwest Houston campus.

The rig, which was built in the summer of 2017, is used to emphasize to Comcast’s employees just how dangerous it is to try to text and drive at the same time. Thomas Baker, the environmental health and safety manager for the media company’s Houston region, believes it has had a significant impact.

“We try to make the point that you really don’t text and drive,” Baker said. “You text OR drive. You can’t really do both.”

Baker said accidents involving Comcast technicians in the Houston region are down 26 percent year over year since the simulator was put into use. The decline is even more dramatic for a type of accident where distracted driving is common. Comcast has seen a 70 percent reduction in collisions in which one of their drivers rear-ended another, Baker said.

The company has recently begun taking the simulator to public events, and setting it up at some its Xfinity stores. It particularly makes an impression on teenage drivers — and their parents.

“Kids are like, ‘Hey, I got this,’ and then they sit down and start driving and they realize they just can’t do it,” Baker said. “And you should see the look on the faces of their parents as they watch the screen and see what’s happening.”

The simulator is made up of off-the-shelf computer and gaming hardware. At its core is an Xbox console, a videogame steering wheel and pedals, and a laptop controls a separate screen that shows both the driver’s face and the game’s display at the same time. Even the software is familiar — it’s a modified version of the classic driving game Test Drive 2.

But this is not a game.

That distracted driving is a major safety issue is not in dispute. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said 3,166 Americans were killed in accidents caused by distracted driving in 2017. That includes distractions other than cell or smartphones, but the National Safety Council estimated that texting alone is the cause of 25 percent of all accidents.

‘Do as I say…’

The problem is aggravated by attitudes. While those questioned in surveys think others shouldn’t text and drive, the respondents often say it’s OK for them to do it because they believe they can handle it.

“With Comcast’s use of a simulator, they are dispelling a myth,” said Brian Fielkow, chief executive of JetCo Delivery, a Houston-based trucking company. “People say, ‘I can multitask’, but no, you cannot. Our brains are not wired that way.”

Fielkow is something of a crusader against distracted driving. He was part of a National Transportation Safety Board roundtable in Houston in April on the subject. And JetCo has a one-strike rule: A driver caught with a phone in his or her hand in the cab is fired, on the spot, he said.

A Comcast spokesman would not say what that company’s penalties are for those caught using a handheld device, or who are involved in an accident as a result of texting or talking on a cell phone. But the company has thousands of techs on the road on any given day — it has 5,450 trucks in the Houston region and they drive a combined 1.5 million miles a month

Employees whose jobs involve driving — whether they are Comcast “box truck” technicians or big-rig drivers hauling cargo cross-country — face a tension in the connected 21st century. Their employers tell them not to make calls or text while they drive, but dispatchers need to communicate changes of plans and bosses may be texting for information.

“If you have a situation where a driver’s boss is texting every few minutes, that employee needs to say, ‘Hey, I am not touching my phone until it’s safe to do so,’” Fielkow said. “It’s my job as an employer to make it clear that our drivers are allowed to operate distraction-free.”

Laws, with loopholes

Federal regulations forbid use of a cell phone for calling or texting for commercial drivers of large vehicles that transport cargo or people, but they don’t apply to smaller vehicles, such as those used by delivery companies or communications technicians. Texas forbids texting while driving, but that law, enacted in 2017, has plenty of loopholes. Drivers can consult maps, make selections from a music app or even dial phone numbers on their devices. There’s no indication the current legislature will pass a more restrictive law that bans holding a cell phone while driving, though State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has filed a bill on the subject.

But even hands-free use of a phone via Bluetooth or advanced features like Siri or Apple’s CarPlay can be a distraction. To illustrate, Comcast’s Baker had one of his technicians try driving the simulator while, at the same time, repeating an alpha-numeric pattern.

He tells technician Martinez to say “A 5, B 10, C 15, D 20,” and then continue the pattern and maintain his speed at 35 MPH on the simulator. Observers watch as his speed creeps up - 40, 50, 60, then 70 MPH.

When it comes to trying to drive and use technology, even Siri won’t save you.

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