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Employers Can Limit Cellphone Use to Reduce Distracted Driving

A woman driving a car while using her cell phone.

​Distracted driving not only puts lives at risk, it also exposes companies to legal liability and lost productivity when their employees are the ones texting, talking on the phone, taking selfies, posting to social media or engaging in other risky activity behind the wheel.

As smartphones and their many addictive apps become an integral feature of work and personal life, experts recommend that employers implement and enforce effective safe-driving policies to protect employees and the public, shield themselves from legal damages, and improve the bottom line.

"A couple of things are shifting. Companies are increasingly recognizing not only their duty of care to their team members—their employees—but also to the communities they serve," said Joe Boyle, CEO of distracted-driving technology firm TRUCE Software in Lisle, Ill. "The conversations are shifting because the behaviors are becoming more and more egregious and more dangerous," with people recording videos of themselves and watching sports events and feature-length films while driving, he noted. "The world is very quickly recognizing that the distractions are broader than they used to be, they're far more pervasive and they're far more addictive."

'Since drivers make more than 200 decisions during every mile traveled, it's critical for employers to stress that when [employees are] driving for work, safe driving is their primary responsibility,' says OSHA. 

More than 3,300 people are killed and 400,000 injured in the United States each year in distracted-driving crashes, according to the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine. Distracted driving plays a role in 25 percent to 30 percent of all traffic crashes, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which notes that even employees' off-the-job crashes can be costly for an employer.

"More time on the road means less time at home or at work, but 'drive time' can never mean 'down time,' " OSHA says on its website. "Since drivers make more than 200 decisions during every mile traveled, it's critical for employers to stress that when [employees are] driving for work, safe driving is their primary responsibility." The agency's website includes guidance for establishing safe-driving programs.

Even hands-free mobile devices pose a risk by causing "inattention blindness" and "cognitive distraction," according to the National Safety Council, which encourages employers to prohibit employees from using cellphones while driving and offers a free safe-driving kit.

Most U.S. states and territories prohibit texting for all drivers, and 16 states and Washington, D.C., have banned all drivers from using hand-held phones.

Nonetheless, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that, at any given moment during daylight hours, more than 800,000 vehicles on U.S. roadways are being driven by people using hand-held phones.

"What I see is we keep tweaking the laws, and [one] reason laws don't work is they're very, very hard to enforce. The other reason is that distracted driving has become so pervasive," said Douglas Horn, lead attorney at Horn Law in Kansas City, Mo. "I don't believe the laws are going to be the future."

For employers, announcing a safe-driving policy isn't enough to prevent accidents and avoid liability, according to experts. Instead, they say, companies need to train and educate employees and enforce their distracted-driving policies.

You must have a policy, Horn said, but having a policy doesn't absolve you of all liability. As a plaintiffs' lawyer, he examines employers' safe-driving policies and checks if companies are doing anything to integrate the practices into the workplace and educate employees.

An employer that has a policy but neglects to educate its workers may be creating evidence that the firm recognizes that distracted driving is a problem, Horn explained.

Numerous companies, including those with policies to prevent distracted driving, have had to pay millions of dollars in jury awards and settlements after their employees caused auto accidents while using cellphones on the job.

In late 2016, textile manufacturer Unifi Inc. agreed to pay $3.75 million to a couple that was injured when one of the company's drivers hit the couple's car while using a mobile phone. The company banned its drivers from using phones behind the wheel.

While Unifi had previously implemented a policy limiting drivers to two minutes of phone use, with a hands-free device, the couple's lawyer argued that the company hadn't enforced the policy and that logs showed the driver had used his phone for most of his shift.

Years earlier, Texas jurors returned a roughly $21 million judgment against Coca-Cola after one of its employees was involved in an auto accident while talking on a cellphone. The employee had been using a hands-free phone in keeping with a company policy that Coca-Cola said exceeded state legal requirements.

"If we really want to get to the heart of the problem, we need a sustained, comprehensive driving safety program [for all employers] that will work 24/7 and not just when [the employers] have a safety meeting," Horn said. "We need a clear, concise and memorable message that employees will hear over and over again."

Horn offers a free model program, Drive By Example, that he says communicates a simple, positive message to "Drive alert, buckled, cautious and defensive." He suggested that companies make driving safety part of their wellness programs and that safety should be part of any company's efforts to be socially conscious.

TRUCE Software's Boyle said a pharmaceutical customer found that productivity increased among its top salespeople and they were more focused after the company introduced technology from his company that allows employers to restrict employees' cellphone use while driving, whether they use company-issued or personal devices.

Other clients' team members similarly comment that driving is more pleasant and that they feel more productive, according to Boyle, who added that customers quickly see a significant reduction in accident rates. Companies can also use the technology for safety on oil rigs, construction sites and heavy equipment, he noted.

"You're going to be able to get the things that you need, but you're not going to watch Manchester United playing in the Premier League when you're driving down the road," Boyle said. "You're not going to update your Facebook status when you're driving down the road hauling a load of natural gas."

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance writer and journalist based in Philadelphia.


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