Driving is one of the most dangerous things we can do while at work. Vehicle crashes are a leading cause of both work-related injuries and fatalities worldwide. Distracted driving has emerged as perhaps the top road safety priority in the United States over the past five years. In 2010 alone, more than 3,000 people were killed in crashes where distracted driving was identified as the primary cause — and many more perished in crashes where distracted driving was a contributing factor.
A driving distraction occurs any time a driver takes his or her eyes off the road, hands off the wheel or mind off the primary task of driving safely. Most of us can remember a time when we were talking on the phone while driving and could not recall how we got to our destination. Extensive research has been conducted to detail how much a driver’s safety is compromised due to distracted driving. For example:
- Drivers who use handheld devices are four times more likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves.
- Text messaging creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted.
- Using a cell phone while driving — whether handheld or hands-free — delays a driver’s reactions as much as a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent.
Armed with such statistics, most insurance carriers are now asking their clients to implement a distracted driving policy, which is an excellent business decision considering that fleet issues impact almost every organization. Even the smallest company often has a sales force that must get out into the field to meet clients, or has an office person drive to the bank on a regular basis. In fact, many businesses are developing policies on their own, as they are concerned about liability issues in the face of new laws and the potential impact on their bottom line.
Potential Consequences. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration law, which prohibits commercial vehicle operators from using handheld cell phones while driving, affects around 4 million heavy trucks and bus drivers, and millions of other lighter-duty commercial vehicles. Violators of the law face initial fines of $2,750 for each offense and the loss of his or her commercial operator’s license for multiple violations. And companies that either require or allow drivers of commercial vehicles to use handheld phones while driving face a penalty up to $11,000 per occurrence.
While the new law places responsibility squarely on business owners, some companies are not aware of their potential exposure. There are plenty of vehicles not owned by the company that can create exposure for unsuspecting organizations — an employee may be driving his or her own car for work. Now, that vehicle is a work-related vehicle.
A Proactive Policy. So what can you do? Education must be a priority.
As of today, no state bans all cell phone use — handheld and hands-free — for all drivers. However, progress continues to be made in that arena. Nine states currently ban the use of handheld devices, 35 states and Washington, D.C., prohibit text messaging for all drivers, and 30 states (including D.C.) ban all cell phone use by new drivers. Even within states that do not put restrictions on cell phone use, many local municipalities have enacted their own laws that must be followed.
As businesses educate themselves and their employees on these federal regulations, applicable state and local laws, as well as potential liability issues, the hope is that implementing distracted-driving policies becomes commonplace. Employers are at risk well beyond being fined, and a crash by a fleet driver can have a devastating impact on a company. Plaintiff attorneys are looking at cell phone use as a cause of motor vehicle crashes. The best practice for all fleets is to have some form of distracted driving policy.
In order for the policy to work, managers and supervisors must buy in and realize they may not be able to reach employees instantaneously. However, that minor inconvenience is well worth the lives and dollars that can be saved by implementing an effective distracted-driving policy.
The author is senior vice president with Weisburger Insurance. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.