Units in Cars Keep Track of Drivers Habits

Columbia Gas program fueling safety on the road

Tyrel Linkhorn
toledoblade.com

vehicle trackingColumbia Gas of Ohio has cut preventable collisions involving on-the-clock employees by nearly a third since installing an in-vehicle monitoring system that flags bad driving in real time.

The companywide initiative uses GPS to give drivers visual and audible warnings for things such as jackrabbit starts, hard braking, and aggressive cornering. The rollout for Ohio was completed in last year’s first quarter, and officials say it’s worked even better than they’d hoped.

“The expectation is that it would help us become safer drivers out there on the road. The thing that I think was a surprise was how quickly that happened for us,” said Brian Collins, the company’s Toledo Operation Center manager. “We could almost see immediate results when we rolled the program out.”

Over the first 11 months with the system, avoidable crashes were down by 30 percent.

The program has also lowered the company’s insurance premiums and is saving on fuel, but Mr. Collins said the goal from the beginning has been helping drivers to be safer.

“I think we’re leading the way with this,” Mr. Collins said. “We’re one of the few energy companies of our size that utilizes it.”

The system Columbia is using comes from Green-Road Technologies Inc., a leading provider of in-vehicle monitoring systems. Each of Columbia Gas’ 1,200 vehicles gets a small GPS tracker and a window-mounted LED display that turns from green to yellow or red when the driver does something the system deems unsafe.

Employees are identified by a fob on their keychains. That allows the company to keep track of incidents but also gives them a more precise accounting of where their employees are for emergency response.

As a result, the company has cut its average response time to 20 minutes and 30 seconds, nearly 6 minutes better than last year.

Mr. Collins, who drives about 15,000 miles a year for Columbia Gas, demonstrated the system for The Blade, inducing a couple of warnings with hard stops and sharp cornering.

“It’s pretty sensitive,” he said. “It has changed not only my driving at the company but at home actually.”

Columbia Gas pays GreenRoad $43.60 per month, per vehicle for the hardware, software, and access to the real-time monitoring system. With a statewide fleet of 1,200 vehicles, that totals nearly $630,000 a year. But officials say it’s worth it.

Spokesman Chris Kozak for the utility said when the program was first rolled out, employees were on average flagged 22 times for every 10 hours of driving. Today that has fallen to 10 per 10 hours of driving.

While the company can more or less see every action its drivers take, officials stress they don’t use the system’s findings to punish employees.

“This is a coaching tool as opposed to a disciplinary tool,” Mr. Kozak said. “No one’s going to lose their job because of any scores that show up in GreenRoad.”

Still, experts say the systems can go a long way in changing driving behavior.

In a recent paper, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health noted in-vehicle monitoring systems within the oil and gas exploration industry — which has one of the highest motor vehicle fatality rates in the country — were able to reduce speeding by 60 percent. The report noted crashes were reduced by 50 percent or more in some cases.

Columbia Gas of Ohio is part of Indiana-based NiSource Inc., which provides gas to consumers in seven states. Mr. Kozak said all of NiSource is now using the GreenRoad technology. The company logs about 57 million miles a year, with 15 million miles coming from Ohio employees.

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