Don’t Let Distracted Drivers Put Your Company at Risk

On-the-job vehicle crashes can be costly to employers, even when they occur off the clock. Protect the company, drivers, and others on the road by developing and enforcing a comprehensive fleet cell phone policy.

The morning of Jan. 25, 2010, was a clear, sunny Texas day. Mindy Ragsdale, a 31-year-old, stay-at-home mom of two, and her 82-year-old grandmother, Peggye Woodson, were on their way to Mindy’s mother’s home.

Their sedan was stopped, waiting to make a left turn onto a heavily traveled two-lane rural highway. For 14 seconds prior to the crash, their vehicle should have been in full view of the driver of a cable TV utility pickup truck as it crested a hill and headed toward them with the cruise control set at approximately 70 mph.

Despite the truck driver’s one-quarter-mile field of vision, the truck slammed into the rear of Ragsdale and Woodson’s vehicle at full speed with the cruise control still engaged. The two were killed on impact.

The crash’s aftermath and its ripple effect were felt by many people.

Ragsdale and her husband, Jeremy, had known each other since high school. Ragsdale’s young children, ages 3 and 9, were left without a mother.

In addition to her children, Ragsdale cared for both sets of grandparents. Woodson’s husband of 62 years lost the attention and care of his lifelong partner and had no choice but to leave their family home and live out his remaining days in a nursing home.

All day, every day, millions of vehicles on the nation’s roads stop at red lights or make left-hand turns and aren’t struck. Ragsdale and Woodson should have been safe as they waited for traffic to clear. They should have arrived home safely as they had countless times before. So why did this tragedy occur? In the immediate aftermath of the accident, the truck’s driver told an emergency medical technician that he had been texting prior to the crash. The driver was employed by a cable company, and the truck was owned by that corporation. For the driver and the cable company, this was only the beginning of the story.

Scary Statistics

In 2010, the year of Ragsdale and Woodson’s crash, motor vehicle crashes killed nearly 33,000 people in the United States.

Motor vehicle crashes are the No. 1 cause of work-related deaths and account for 24 percent of all fatal occupational injuries. On-the-job crashes are costly to employers, incurring costs of more than $24,500 per property damage crash and $150,000 per injury crash.

Driver distraction is a significant factor in crashes, and cell phones have played an increasing role as use has grown rapidly in the past 15 years, from a small percentage of the population using cell phones less than a generation ago to virtually every person from young to old alike. Today, there are more U.S. cell phone subscriptions than there are people living in the United States, according to the National Safety Council (NSC).

The NSC estimates that at least 24 percent of crashes in 2010 involved drivers using cell phones, including 1.1 million crashes where drivers were talking on cell phones, and a minimum of 160,000 crashes during which drivers were texting.

Dangerous Distractions

Cell phone distraction involves all types of driver distractions: visual, manual, and cognitive. More than 30 research studies have found that hands-free devices offer no safety benefit, because they do not eliminate the cognitive distraction of conversation.

What does this mean for employers? Employees who use their cell phones while driving expose themselves to a significant safety risk that they are seemingly willing to accept. This risk applies to all employees, not just commercial drivers or other employees whose work involves driving, such as field salespeople or service technicians. A recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) survey found that drivers cite work-related communications as a reason to use phones while driving.

Employers who expect employees to use cell phones while driving as part of their business must recognize that doing so exposes their employees to a preventable crash risk and the employers to costly liability. Consider a situation in which an employer knew a behavior in some area of its operations exposed employees to a four-time greater risk of injury.

Would employers still expect, or even encourage, that behavior? That is precisely what happens when an employer permits or encourages employee cell phone use while driving.

With the intense publicity surrounding cell phone distracted driving in recent years, it would be difficult for employers and employees to argue that they’re not aware of the dangers. Beyond safety issues, employers are now being held to legal responsibility.

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