By Robert L. Sumwalt
As we approach the end of Distracted Driving Awareness Month, we recognize that today, April 28th, is World Day for Safety and Health at Work. This date provides us an opportunity to focus on the unique challenges of the phenomenon of distracted driving in the workplace. As we heard at last month’s NTSB Disconnect from Deadly Distractions Roundtable, the growing threat of on-the-job distracted driving has created a legal minefield for unsuspecting, and unprepared, employers.
Sound far-fetched? Think again. Back in 2002, a major investment banking firm was sued by the estate of a motorcyclist who was struck and killed by a firm employee using his cell phone behind the wheel. Although the accident occurred on a Saturday night – not during work hours – and the employee was using his own cell phone in his own car, he had been cold-calling clients of the firm when he struck the motorcyclist. In another case, a driver was seriously injured when a Georgia construction company worker tried to check voicemail on a hands-free, dash-mounted cell phone and caused an accident. The construction company settled the case for $4.75 million. Even more recently, in 2012, a Texas jury awarded $24 million to a woman whose car was struck by a soft drink delivery driver using her cell phone at time of the accident.
Employers – especially small business owners – can be one distracted accident away from potential financial ruin. How can employers protect themselves, and their employees? They can protect both by implementing and reinforcing policies that ban personal electronic device (PED) usage behind the wheel while on company business.
At the NTSB, we’re walking that particular walk. Since 2009, we have had an agency-wide policy to prohibit employee use of PEDs while on NTSB business. Even when driving in our own vehicles, on our own time, we cannot use agency-issued PEDs behind the wheel. It was a difficult transition for many, but the result has been to set an example for safety we hope employers across the nation will emulate.
Organizations like the National Safety Council (NSC) have already made it easier for companies to follow our example. In addition to its white paper examining potential employer liability for distracted driving by employees, the NSC has developed a cell phone policy kit ready-made to empower businesses to implement safer PED use policies.
At its core, the movement behind Distracted Driving Awareness Month is intended not only to raise awareness about the dangers posed by divided attention behind the wheel, but also to prompt action to stop it. Through the creation of sound cell phone use policies, employers are uniquely situated to effect this kind of real and immediate change in employee behavior – change that can carry over into employees’ personal lives, as well. Once employees are freed from the nagging demands on their attention by cell phones in their company cars, they may very well choose to put down their PEDs in their own vehicles.
Working to end distracted driving on behalf of your employees protects your workforce, protects the traveling public, and protects your bottom line. It just makes sense. Disconnect from deadly distractions.