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Fleet News award winner 2014: best new product or service - Smart Witness

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Two fatal motorway crashes within three years became the catalyst for Simon Marsh to launch a new business creating dashboard cameras to protect drivers.

The incidents, which resulted in the death of members of staff and other road users, occured while Marsh was responsible for managing a van and truck fleet of 100 vehicles.

His drivers were eventually cleared of any blame, but Marsh was determined to make his fleet safer and further protect his drivers if the worst was ever to happen again.

In 2009 Marsh joined SmartWitness, an in car camera company, with the aim of further developing fleet safety technology.

The move coincided with a general trend for fleets to adopt technology as a powerful weapon in their road safety arsenal.

Tracking, telematics and vehicle safety equipment, such as autonomous emergency braking, have all made a major contribution to reducing and managing risk.

Fleets are now increasingly turning to dashboard cameras, such as those supplied by SmartWitness, winner of the Fleet News Award for best new product or service.

Fleet News: What was your motivation for setting up SmartWitness?
Simon Marsh: After the first fatal incident in 2005, in which three lives were lost, I became obsessed with safety. I started to look in even more detail at things I could change to make our vehicles even safer.

I looked at proximity control, lane assist and finally CCTV. It wasn’t a cheap solution at about £1,500 per vehicle at the time, but I saw an instant change in driver behaviour once the cameras were installed.

FN: What impact did the cameras have?
SM: There was a huge reduction in ‘silly’ accidents. Once we began showing drivers the footage it really educated them. For us, the cameras weren’t just there to defend insurance claims, they gave us a better knowledge of the drivers and made them more cautious. It got the drivers to understand how they drive in the real world and got them to drive more defensively, giving themselves extra space and time to react.

FN: Your accidents involved truck drivers – did you think the cameras should also be fitted to vans?
SM: If anything, vans are a higher risk than trucks. My fleet was split between vans and trucks, and I fitted the cameras to both. Vans can be driven at much higher speeds than trucks, and it’s far easier to exceed speed limits. The other obstacle you have with vans is that anyone with a licence can legally drive one, whereas truck drivers face much heavier regulation.

FN: How do employees react to having their driving recorded?
SM: As a road user, your driving doesn’t just affect you, it affects everyone who is sharing the road with you. As a nation, we’re becoming more receptive and open about data. Ten years ago, the idea of today’s black box insurance programmes wouldn’t happen. Today, we’re so connected anyway that people are more prepared to give away data that benefits their safety and finances.

FN: Your latest camera model includes a lot more technology and functionality than the previous edition. What’s new?

SM: The addition we’re most proud of is FNOL – first notification of loss. Within seconds of an incident of force, the camera can transmit the location and the footage immediately before and after the accident to up to four specified email addresses. These could include the fleet manager and your insurance company, so they can begin to process the claim straight away.

The same system also allows you to get video clips when a driver crosses a certain speed threshold, or when there’s an instance of harsh braking – the video is fantastic at giving context to explain incidents. If a driver is avoiding a farm animal, he’d get a black mark on telematics; with a camera, the footage tells the story.

The camera was developed by our research teams and runs our software. All the firmware on the device can be updated automatically, without the user having to do anything.

The internet-enabled functions of the camera draw on a connection, provided by a standard 3G dongle, which slots into a USB port inside the lockable camera enclosure. The level of data usage is fairly low, so a pay-as-you-go SIM card is all that’s needed. All communications with the camera are over email – it doesn’t use our servers at all.

Some customers take advantage of the feature that allows an input from another camera, which can either be pointed at the driver or linked to a monitor and used as a reversing camera. The driver-focused camera is particularly helpful in explaining the reasons behind the incident. As the dangers of distracted driving become ever more prominent, we can see this option being fitted in a lot more cases. The cameras lock into place on the windscreen so drivers can’t turn the lens away, which has happened before in some cases.

They are hard-wired into the vehicle, although there is an option for low power to record break-in attempts.

FN: You recently announced a partnership with Milestone Insurance Brokers. What impact do you see cameras having on the insurance sector?
SM: Milestone came to us because it could see the need for the product. It provides the camera as part of its policies, and has found particular success in the taxi environment.

In accident claims involving cameras, it has seen disputes fall from 40% to 2%. Watching the footage takes away so much doubt that would previously have existed. The vast majority of drivers don’t intentionally lie, but they’ll replay the incident over and over again in their mind and sometimes won’t remember it as it happened. There’s a dramatic effect from showing drivers the footage.

FN: Do you have any other partnerships on the horizon?
SM: We’ve been looking at partnerships with a few telematics companies recently. Our product accompanies their systems very well and the two sets of data become very useful. We’ve been working with telematics company Microlise since 2012 and we are speaking to other businesses as well.

Several insurance companies have been conducting trials of the system, and we’re looking at what else we can do to tailor the package to their requirements.

We’re also looking to branch out globally. Our office in America is now open, and a European office will follow soon. To date, we’ve sold 250,000 of the previous-generation camera around the world, so we hope to beat that number with the more capable KP1 version.

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