Distracted Driving Policies Save Lives, Protect Organizations

By Roy Maurer May 19, 2015
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Organizations that fail to create and enforce policies prohibiting employees from using their phones while driving put workers in jeopardy and increase employer liability, according to the National Safety Council (NSC).

“We live in a very connected world,” said Deborah Hersman, CEO and president of the NSC. “Many of us find it hard to disconnect from work when we are away from the office, and … it begs the question: What is the cost of constant connectivity? Is convenience more important than safety?”

What Is Distracted Driving?

Distracted driving is the No. 1 cause of workplace deaths in the United States, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The NSC estimates that cellphones are involved in 26 percent of all traffic crashes.

“Distracted driving clearly includes entering phone numbers or talking on a cellphone, even hands-free, and texting, e-mailing, or accessing other smartphone or Internet-based features,” said Jennifer Sandberg, a partner in the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips. “Yet most employers do not have a long-standing distracted driving policy but rather have just a hands-free-mobile-device-use policy. If they have a policy at all,” she said.

Employers who do not take this issue seriously should expect citations from OSHA, remarked Valerie Butera, an attorney in the Washington, D.C., office of Epstein Becker Green. “On its distracted driving webpage, the agency has stated that employers have a responsibility and legal obligation to have a clear, unequivocal and enforced policy against texting while driving,” she said.

According to OSHA, an employer’s responsibility extends to workers who drive full or part time, and includes all workers whether they drive a company vehicle or their own, or whether they use a company-provided phone or their own for work purposes.

Establishing a Distracted Driving Policy

An unwritten policy of “drive safely” isn’t good enough anymore. Employers need a distracted driving policy or at least a hands-free policy, said Sandberg. Policies should be practical, enforceable, and designed to protect employees and employers in all possible scenarios. “A best-practice cellphone policy covers all employees, both handheld and hands-free devices, company vehicles, company cellphones, and all work-related communications,” said Hersman.

What is practical and enforceable may vary by industry and the types of workplace driving that occur, but employees need to be trained to comply with any applicable state law, said Sandberg.

Currently, no state law addresses both hands-free and handheld phone use among all drivers for both talking and text messaging, so the NSC recommends employer policies exceed state law requirements.

Currently more than 6 million workers are safeguarded by complete cellphone bans through their employers, according to the NSC.

But these policies often cover only fleet drivers and often do not include hands-free devices, Hersman said.

“A huge opportunity exists for more employers to put policies in place or upgrade the ones they have. We created a free policy kit with information you can use to establish or strengthen your company’s policy,” she said.“Employers should strongly discourage distracted driving by incorporating written safe driving policies into employee handbooks, providing training on these policies during worker orientation, and providing annual refresher training,” Butera said.

The NSC recommends that employers implement and enforce policies banning cellphone use while driving. Such a policy should include:

  • Clear language.
  • Documented training sessions.
  • A requirement that employees read and sign the policy.
  • Explanations of disciplinary action for violations.

In addition, the policy could include established procedures, times and places for drivers’ safe use of cellphones and other electronic devices for communicating, and offer basic alternatives like pulling over or waiting until returning to the office to talk or do work on the phone. “To the extent that the employer has any programs in place that could incentivize employees to use cellphones or other electronic devices while driving, they should be eliminated,” Butera said.

Enforcing the Policy

Simply writing and communicating a policy is not enough. Although not a shield from lawsuits, strictly enforced policies can help reduce risk of crashes, injuries and costly outcomes. “Cellphone usage and texting are verifiable,” Sandberg said. “When an accident occurs, records exist that show whether a driver was using a cellphone. In our legal system, such ‘proof’ means trouble for the user of the cellphone and the user’s employer if the user was either conducting work on the cellphone or driving for work,” she said.

Employers must decide what level of compliance to enforce, said Sandberg. A policy that states “never ever engage in any form of distracted driving or you will be terminated immediately” is the wrong move, she said. “While such a policy might be theoretically perfect, it is practically imperfect. Some form of distracted driving is inevitable and immediate termination may not be the answer.” Sandberg advised employers to develop a policy that works for their industry and their drivers and “is a policy that you can enforce.”

A 2009 survey of NSC members found the following methods are being used to manage compliance with distracted driving policies:

  • Honor system.
  • Reports by others.
  • Parking lot observations.
  • Drivers’ records/traffic citations.
  • In-vehicle monitoring with cameras and other technologies.
  • Technologies that prohibit cellphone use while driving.

“Employers should reprimand employees who violate safe driving policies and those reprimands should involve serious penalties, including, where appropriate, termination,” said Butera. “There is no way to protect employees from every hazard they may encounter on the road, but implementing a strong safe driving program will go a long way towards decreasing the likelihood of a workplace tragedy on the road.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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