Do not disturb

June 1, 2012
Even with policies in place, companies can be liable for distracted driving incidents

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 of ours to let a ringing phone do what it does best—ring. But if you’re reading this today, at least you haven’t been a victim. Not yet, anyway.

Distracted driving has received a lot of attention lately, and deservedly so. Laws are being written, regulations are being proposed, and public service announcements are everywhere. And yet, people are still dying simply because a ringing telephone can never go unanswered, although there are times it should.

Much of the recent focus has been on texting while driving, but there is no doubt that use of a phone or computer in a vehicle is a distraction—and in many states, against the law. There remains continuing debate about whether hands-free devices are actually safer as some claim. 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. If your carrier has not implemented a policy, however, it needs to, and soon.

The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that at least 24% of crashes in 2010 involved drivers using cell phones. 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 a handheld or hands-free device. The report noted that companies that expect to communicate with employees put themselves at even greater risk legally if there is a reasonable expectation that those employees may be driving.

NSC pointed out that businesses may be held liable 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 recommends 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.

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

The report noted that a 2010 survey of Fortune 500 companies that had implemented a total ban on cell phones 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. You can learn more at

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