Carriers at risk when distracted driving is allowed

Go ahead. It’s okay to admit it. We’ve all done it. The phone rings and for a moment, just a brief moment in time, we turn our attention to the cell phone. Perhaps we’re annoyed by the ringing; maybe we just don’t want to miss the call; or perhaps we’re simply too well-conditioned in this modern society by both our hectic schedules and the increasing desire of management to be on-call 24/7, even when we’re not. But if you’re reading this today, at least you haven’t been a victim – yet.

Distracted driving has received a lot of attention in 2012, and deservedly so. Laws are being written, regulations are being proposed, and public service announcements are everywhere – from billboards to magazines to your favorite TV show at night. And yet, people are still dying simply because a ringing telephone can never go unanswered, although there are times it should.

Much of the focus has been on texting while driving, but there is no doubt that use of a phone or computer in the cab is a distraction – and in most states, against the law. There remains continuing debate about whether hands-free devices are actually safer as some claim that the act of carrying on the conversation is distraction enough. For carriers, though, the fact remains that a driver involved in an incident where distraction played a role is a major liability, both from a financial and public relations standpoint. As a result, carriers across the country are implementing policies to combat distracted driving.

This, we all know. If your carrier has not implemented a policy, though, it needs to, and soon. The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that at least 24% of crashes in 2010 involved drivers using cell phones. That’s 1.1 million crashes where drivers were talking on a cell phone and a minimum of 160,000 where drivers were texting, the group said. Those crashes are costing companies $24,500 per property damage crash and $150,000 per injury crash, and as much as $3.6 million per fatality.

In its white paper, Employer Liability and the Case for Comprehensive Cell Phone Policies, NSC noted that research studies found the risk of a crash to be four times as likely when a person is using a cell phone, regardless of whether it was handheld or hands-free device. The report noted that companies who expect to communicate with the employees and have a reasonable expectation that those employees may be driving when that contact is made put themselves at even greater risk legally.

“Business leaders owe it to their employees to put safety first – especially when employees are on the roads,” said Janet Froetscher, NSC president & CEO. “Employers should know a policy that prohibits handheld and hands-free cell phone use by all employees while driving is not only a best safety practice but also contributes to the bottom line.” 

NSC pointed out that businesses may be held responsible for the actions of an employee within the course of their duties, meaning if your driver is on the phone when an incident occurs, the company may be just as responsible for the incident as the driver. To combat this, NSC recommended companies go beyond what the law requires.

“Companies whose leaders are committed to safety excellence know that their safety systems and policies often exceed OSHA requirements or state laws, because regulations and laws often prescribe minimum standards, not best-in-class safety,” the report noted. In fact, the report goes on to note that “employers can and have been held liable for actions that are actually allowed by federal regulation and individual state laws.”

According to Attorney Todd Clement, “juries are generally motivated to award large verdicts not be sympathy or outrage; rather large verdicts are returned when the jurors believe that such versions make themselves and their children safer.”

The report concludes by encouraging all businesses to enact a total ban on cell-phone use while driving. It noted that a 2010 survey of Fortune 500 companies that had implemented a total ban found that only 7% saw a decline in worker productivity and 19% believed that productivity increased. NSC also noted that while having a strong policy in place does not insulate a carrier from damages, it can reduce the severity of claims.

Something any good fleet manager should consider just as they would consider any other operational cost. If you don’t have a plan in place, it’s time to get one.

NSC has created a document to help companies interested in implementing a policy. It can be downloaded for free from

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