April 2019 is the National Safety Council’s Distracted Driving Awareness Month. This annual campaign seeks to expand awareness on the risks of distracted driving, provide resources for drivers and employers, and make roadways safer by promoting the #justdrive pledge. According to the National Safety Council, nine drivers are killed and 100 drivers are injured each day due to distracted driving incidents. Furthermore, according to the Centers for Disease Control, vehicular crashes are the leading cause of workplace fatalities, accounting for 24% of all work-related deaths. So, what is distracted driving? What legal responsibilities do employers have in preventing distracted driving? What can employers do to prevent distracted driving? These questions and more will be explored in this article.
Distracted Driving - The Blunt Reality
First, let’s discuss what distracted driving is and debunk some common misconceptions.
Distracted driving are behaviors and actions that cause drivers to reduce overall mental concentration on the task at hand - driving a vehicle. Distracted driving includes actions such as:
Looking at oneself in the mirror
Finding an item in a briefcase, purse, or vehicle compartment
Turning around to look at, talk to, or assist a child in a car seat
Talking to a passenger
Interacting with vehicle technology such as navigation system, dashboard, etc.
Texting or talking on a cell phone
Engaging in a hands-free phone conversation
That last point may be surprising and you might be thinking: “Isn’t hands-free safe? After all, most cars now come standard with bluetooth technology for cell phone pairing.” Or maybe you consider hands-free calling a central aspect of your job: “I’m in outside sales and a large part of my time is spent calling leads or following-up with customers while on the road.” Others may scoff and point out that their employer has a policy that allows calls while driving so long as they are hands free. And some may resort to confidence, “Hands-free doesn’t distract me - I’m an experienced driver.” Whatever the excuse may be, the reality is that hands-free calling is distracted driving and it’s not any safer than texting while driving. In fact, it is just as dangerous as driving under the influence. So why is hands-free not safe? Well, it all has to do with the brain.
The brain is amazingly complex and sophisticated. As the body’s central processing unit, the brain is capable of receiving, interpreting, and transmitting signals and information effortlessly and continuously. Much of this is unknown to us, like our ability to breath and maintain a heartbeat without any awareness. The things we are consciously engaged in depend upon our brain’s acute ability to respond to sensory information. Many of us can quickly interpret when something is hot to the touch or when we hear a loud sound. But rarely are our needs for sense perception so granularly simple. Instead, we engage in complex tasks that require our brains to rapidly select, process, encode (memorize), and store information. Importantly, this process should not be confused with multitasking. In fact, contrary to popular belief, the brain cannot multitask; instead, the brain is continuously filtering and prioritizing information. The more tasks we engage in simultaneously, the more information the brain must sift through and the more likely critical signals may go unnoticed. When it comes to driving, a missed signal could cost someone their life. The reality is that hands free calling does not limit the cognitive distraction of conversation.
The Responsibility of the Employer:
Employers have a responsibility to protect the health and safety of employees. Considering the dangers of cell phone use (including hands free) while driving are well documented and understood, employers who expect or condone employees to engage in such risky behavior can be found negligent and liable in the event of a crash. Employers can even be found liable if they do not have a strong, enforced cell phone policy in place. Policies that pertain to commercial fleets are not enough. Crash settlements have shown that employers can even be liable for employee negligence during off-the-job hours, especially in situations in which a cell phone is company property.
Implementing an effective and enforceable cell phone policy requires strong support from executive leadership and management. Employees should be educated on the dangers of distracted driving and included in the creation of the cell phone policy in order to gain broad support and participation. Clear, enforceable consequences should be included in the policy so as to thwart risky behavior. Employers should use a combination of training, marketing campaigns, parking lot signage, email reminders, and safety talks to keep the dangers of distracted driving top-of-mind and encourage positive behavior change. Employers that have commercial fleets, provide company vehicles, or provide company cell phones need to account for all situations of liability in the cell phone policy.
April 2019 is Distracted Driving Awareness month. If your company does not already have a cell phone policy in place take this as an opportunity to start a much needed conversation with a supervisor or leadership team. For more resources and information on distracted driving, go to distracteddriving.nsc.org. Remember, hands free is not risk free - take the pledge to #justdrive.
Progress Demands Change
*National Safety Council. “Understanding the distracted brain.” White Paper 2012. http//www/distracteddriving.nsc.org