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By Kathy Gurchiek  2/22/2007

A Scottish safety expert caught shaving while driving in rush hour traffic to the first-aid seminar he was supposed to teach is one of the latest examples of “driving while distracted” (DWD).

Sending text or instant messages while driving, nursing a baby, changing clothes and watching a movie are among driver distractions that Nationwide Mutual Insurance discovered in a survey of 1,200 Americans it released in January 2007.

Thirty-five percent of members of Generation Y surveyed said they always multitask while driving, the survey found, followed by 30 percent of Generation X and 21 percent of baby boomers. Those surveyed were drivers between the ages of 18 and 60.

“We are a nation of people with too much to do and too little time,” Nationwide’s associate vice president of safety, Bill Windsor, said in a press release.

In at least one case, not paying attention ended fatally for a pedestrian in Stuttgart, Ark., who was eating from a bowl and talking on her cell phone when she walked past a railroad crossing gate and into the path of a freight train on Feb. 12, 2007.

“Driving requires significant attention,” Windsor noted. “Multitasking while behind the wheel poses a threat to you and your fellow drivers.”

In the United States, distracted drivers account for almost 80 percent of all vehicle crashes, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Among key findings from Nationwide’s survey, conducted Nov. 3 to Nov. 20, 2006:

    • 73 percent overall use cell phones when they drive.

    • 37 percent of Generation Y sends text or instant messages while driving, followed by 17 percent of Generation X and 2 percent of boomers.

    • 73 percent of Generation Y eat snacks and 48 percent eat full meals in the car.

Other distractions behind the wheel included putting in contact lenses, writing a grocery list, reading a book, checking a BlackBerry, fixing hair and changing seats with passengers, Nationwide said.

However, cell phone use is the most common driver distraction, says a landmark research report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI).

The 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study tracked the behavior of the drivers of 100 vehicles equipped with video and sensor devices for more than one year. Vehicles were driven nearly 2 million miles during that time in the Northern Virginia/metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

The 241 drivers were involved in 82 crashes, 761 near crashes and 8,295 serious incidents. Drivers were age 18 to 73, and 60 percent were male.

The Center for Auto Safety wants to restrict the use of systems that allow drivers to have wireless access while behind the wheel.

In January 2007 the center filed a petition with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, asking that agency to initiate regulations that prohibit cell phone “and other interactive communication and data transmission devices,” including messaging devices, while a vehicle is in motion.

“The purpose of this petition,” it said in its letter to the NHTSA, “is to make the driving environment safer by reducing the availability of devices that have been proven to be traffic hazards.

Liability issues for employers

“There are a number of areas of liability for employers in terms of how employees use these devices,” says Sherrie Travis, a partner in the Management Employment & Labor Law Practice Group at Wildman Harrold LLP in Chicago.

“There's the obvious safety issue,” she said in a press release. “Employers have been sued when employees using cell phones or PDAs [personal digital assistants] have caused car accidents while driving for work purposes.”

She also noted that employers “face significant exposure when their employees misuse company-provided electronic equipment to engage in inappropriate and possibly illegal activities."

The California Association of Employers in July 2004 recommended that employers develop a cell phone policy that requires employees to pull off the road before conducting business by cell phone.

In mid-October 2004, a Virginia jury awarded $2 million in damages to the family of a young girl who was killed by a driver on a cell phone at the time of the accident. The driver’s employer also was sued when an examination of the driver’s phone records showed she was talking to a client when she hit the girl, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Another case, in December 2004, involved a driver using a cell phone for business reasons who severely injured another person in a car crash.

The suit was dismissed, the Insurance Information Institute reported, when the driver’s employer, Beers Skanska Inc., agreed to pay $5 million, but it was among the most recent cases that held an employer liable for an accident caused by a driver using a cell phone, the institute said.

“Under the doctrine of vicarious responsibility, employers may be held legally accountable for the negligent acts of employees committed in the course of employment,” the institute points out on its web site

“Employers may also be found negligent if they fail to put in place a policy for the safe use of cell phones. In response, many companies have established cell phone usage policies. Some allow employees to conduct business over the phone as long as they pull over to the side of the road or into a parking lot.

“Others have completely banned the use of all wireless devices.”

Using technology? Use common sense

Every study and survey will show that driving while distracted is a complicated issue, says Joe Farren, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based CTIA-The Wireless Association.

“Technology is part of it, but there are numerous other distractions that are going to confront drivers on a regular basis,” he pointed out to HR News.

“As we drive on the roads we all see the folks reading the paper, combing their hair and eating breakfast, lunch and dinner behind the wheel. And we certainly don’t want to ignore those distractions because they’re potentially just as dangerous,” he said.

“If you think your phone is going to distract you, don’t use it. Period,” he said. However, he suggests that workers who use a cell phone when behind the wheel take the following precautions:

    • Keep your phone calls short.

    • Avoid making or taking calls in difficult traffic and inclement weather.

    • Make sure your car is stopped when you are dialing.

    • Use a headset.

    • Don’t engage in stressful or emotional calls.

And when it comes to sending text messages while driving, he said, “They certainly shouldn’t be doing that.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News . She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

Related articles:

California: Cell phones must go hands-free, Workplace Law Focus Area, Nov. 17, 2006.

Cell Phone Use Policy, SHRM Knowledge Center.

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