Rules of the Road

Here’s why your company should implement a policy against employees driving distracted

Mark Riggs tries to handle steering, shifting and watching the road -- all while talking on his cell phone cellphone. While promoting safety is the most important reason for companies to enact policies against distracted driving, if an employee crashes while driving a company vehicle or using a company phone or driving a personal vehicle and using a personal phone for company concerns, the employer can be held liable.
Mark Riggs tries to handle steering, shifting and watching the road -- all while talking on his cell phone cellphone. While promoting safety is the most important reason for companies to enact policies against distracted driving, if an employee crashes while driving a company vehicle or using a company phone or driving a personal vehicle and using a personal phone for company concerns, the employer can be held liable. Knight Ridder

Question: With all the attention on distracted driving lately, it got me thinking of an employee cell phone policy where I work. I like the idea, but where do I start?

Answer: I know we just addressed cell phones and driving a couple weeks ago, but employer/employee responsibility is a side of distracted driving that doesn’t get much attention. Plus, April is distracted driving awareness month, so I feel justified in doubling down on this topic.

Whether you’re an employer or an employee, you’ll benefit from a good distracted driving policy. For those who have not yet thought about distracted driving at work, here are a few reasons why this is so important.

The primary reason to have a company policy on phones and driving is safety. Traffic collisions are the No. 1 cause of workplace deaths, and not by a little bit. Of the roughly 4,000 workplace deaths in a year, 1,600 are from motor vehicle crashes. The next highest category is responsible for half as many deaths per year.

Of those 1,600 deaths from crashes, about a fourth of them involve distracted driving. By developing and enforcing a company distracted driving policy, an employer can have a real impact on the safety of employees.

The second reason for an employer to establish a distracted driving policy is liability. I learned a new legal term while investigating this topic: respondeat superior, which is Latin for “let the master answer.” As you might guess, it basically means that the boss is ultimately responsible for the actions of employees.

This legal theory applies in any situation in which the employee (or even a contractor) is taking an action in the interests of the company.

Employers have been found liable for employee crashes in all of the following situations (I’ve included what it cost the employer):

▪ Employee driving a company car makes a personal call and rear-ends another car ($21.6 million).

▪ Employee talking hands-free on a business call, according to company policy, strikes another vehicle ($21 million).

▪ Tractor-trailer driver checks texts and crashes into stopped traffic ($24.7 million).

▪ Employee who was lost and using GPS on his phone ran a red light and crashed ($4.1 million)

▪ Off-duty police officer driving a patrol car caused a crash while texting ($4 million)

▪ Sales person making “cold calls” on his personal phone while driving his own car to a non-work event on a Saturday night caused a crash ($500,000)

Every one of these crashes resulted in a fatality or serious injury. If an employee crashes while driving a company vehicle or using a company phone or driving a personal vehicle and using a personal phone for company concerns, the employer can be held liable.

And a third reason: It’s bad for business. Studies show that in negotiations or other important discussions, a person driving a car is at a strategic disadvantage compared to someone who is not driving. As an employer, allowing your employees to make sales calls or handle business transactions while driving means you’re probably not getting the best deal.

Is it really that important to establish a policy? Maybe you have great employees who would never use their phones while driving. If that’s true, you’re in the minority. Over half of workers admit to job-related phone use while driving.

This isn’t just for business owners. If you’re an employee working at a company with out a distracted driving policy, getting your boss to establish a policy can take pressure off you to respond to work-related calls and texts while driving. Without that policy, the expectations, whether unstated or overt, can push employees to take unnecessary risks while driving.

If you develop a distracted driving policy for your business, it’s important to make sure that employees understand the policy as well as the consequences for violation. The policy needs to be more than just words in a manual; it should be modeled by the leadership.

When you’re ready to start the distracted driving policy process, the National Safety Council is a great place to begin. They offer a free cell phone policy kit (safety.nsc.org/cellphonekit) that will help you write and implement a successful distracted driving policy.

To quote Mark Twain, “It is better to be careful 100 times than to get killed once.” That applies both to the lives of drivers and the life of a business. For the safety of your employees and for the sustainability of your company, I’d recommend a distracted driving policy.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.

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