Everyone knows the dangers of drinking while driving. But what risks do companies face when their employees work while driving? The answer: more than you might think. The National Safety Council estimates that one distracted driving accident occurs every 24 seconds, resulting in an estimated 800,000 to 900,000 accidents annually. Corporate exposure to these accidents is magnified by virtue of widespread cell phone use in the business world. The temptation to handle business matters while driving is ever-present, especially when many believe they can keep one eye on the road and the other on an email. Employees use this modern day “multitasking” in an effort to be efficient, while in reality, they are engaging in an unsafe business practice that can result in serious corporate liability.
Should an employee be involved in an accident when handling business matters, while either driving or using a company vehicle, the consequences could be dire. For example, in one incident, a lumber salesman using a cell phone crippled a woman, which resulted in a $16.1 million settlement. In another incident, a company employee using a cell phone failed to see that traffic had slowed and caused a chain reaction crash that killed a 32-year-old woman, resulting in a $21.6 million jury verdict. A trucking company was ordered to pay $18 million for an accident that occurred when a driver reached for a cell phone. Another company settled for $5.2 million after a woman lost her arm in an accident caused by an employee on a cell phone. The list goes on and on. If you considered how many times your employees (or you) conducted business on a smartphone while driving, it would probably keep you up at night. The good news is that with just a few simple steps, companies can attempt to reduce exposure for distracted driving lawsuits.
1. Institute a cell phone policy
If your company does not yet have a policy for cell phone use while driving, it should institute one immediately. The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that all companies prohibit the use of cell phones while driving. This includes a ban on all communications, including talking on the phone, using a hands-free or blue-tooth device, texting and emailing. This is, of course, the most prudent and safest policy for a company to employ.
At the very least, any cell phone use policy should comply with your applicable state and local law. Currently, 10 states prohibit the use of hand-held devices, 39 states prohibit texting while driving, three states prohibit any cell phone use by school bus drivers and 32 states prohibit the use of cell phones by young/novice drivers. Keep current with the status of the law in your area, and, if necessary, amend your company’s policy as the law changes in your jurisdiction.
Some companies choose to permit the use of hands-free devices while driving. While this is certainly an option, studies show that using a hands-free device is no safer than using a hand-held device. Thus, the prudent and most conservative policy is to ban all employees from using cell phones while driving.
2. Publicize the policy
If your company institutes a cell phone use policy, but does nothing to publicize it to your employees, you could continue to face liability. So, publicize the new policy (and re-publicize it often). Send out a company-wide email. Add a blurb to a company newsletter. Have employees sign a document noting that they have read and will comply with the policy. Post signs with a catchy phrase or slogan re-enforcing the policy in employee common areas, by the exits of buildings and in your company parking lots. Have managers remind employees of the policy at staff meetings, and document every time you provide those reminders. If your business has company vehicles, post signs on the dashboards with a reminder to pull over to handle any calls, texts or emails. All of this will be useful should your company ever face a lawsuit for injuries caused by an accident wherein distracted driving is alleged.
3. Enforce the policy
Should the company learn that an employee continues to use his cell phone while driving in a company vehicle, handling company business and/or using a company cell phone, company policy should be strictly enforced, up to and including termination.
4. Provide tools to your employees
Remind employees that no phone call is worth their health and safety, or the safety of others on the road. The world will not end because of a short delay in responding to a text, call or email message. No deal is big enough to outweigh the potential exposure facing a company should a distracted driving accident occur. Strongly suggest to employees that before they get on the road, they leave a voicemail message and/or out-of-office email notifying the caller/sender that they are driving and will respond once they are able to safely return the message.
5. Practice what You preach
Some of the worst offenders may be the ones trying to institute and enforce a cell phone policy, such as company executives, general counsel or even the inquisitive mind reading this article (hopefully not while driving). This policy is an opportunity to lead by example. No lower-level employees should see a company CEO or general counsel breaking the policy. If a company executive demonstrates that she can wait to safely respond to calls and emails, then other employees will follow suit.
Following these simple tips can greatly reduce your company’s exposure. Ensuring that your company will not be the next example of what can happen when an employee causes an accident due to cellphone use will protect the continued safety of your employees and ultimately benefit your bottom line.