Headlines abound about tragic car accidents resulting from drivers distracted by cell phones. Many of those reports involve drivers taking calls or texts while they’re on the job. Such tragedies have prompted a number of employers to develop policies aimed at curtailing use of phones while employees are driving. Those tragedies also have prompted juries to punish employers who have failed to take action, and verdicts topping $20 million have hit the news.
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Developing and enforcing policies falls to HR, and the pressure is on for those policies to make a difference — both to improve safety and to lessen an employer’s liability. Policy options run the gamut from “no-texting behind the wheel” to “no texting or talking on handheld devices” to “no texting or talking at all, even on hands-free devices.”
The National Safety Council (NSC), a nonprofit organization that partners with businesses, government, and the public, released a white paper earlier this year aimed at making the case that drivers shouldn’t use cell phones. The report calls on employers to enforce a complete ban on cell phones while driving.
“The best action for employers is to implement a total ban policy that includes handheld and hands-free devices and prohibits all employees from using cell phones while driving,” the report states. “This policy should be reinforced throughout the year with education.”
The report also reminds employers of their legal risks. “An employer may be held legally accountable for negligent employee actions if the employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment at the time of a crash,” the report states. “The key phrase ‘acting within the scope of his or her employment’ can and has been defined broadly in cases of crashes involving cell phones.”
The NSC urges employers to go beyond limits imposed by laws and regulations. The report points out that companies frequently design safety systems to exceed state and federal laws since those requirements “often prescribe minimum standards, not best-in-class safety.”
“Cell phone use while driving is, in this way, no different than many other occupational safety issues,” the report continues. “Employers can and have been held liable for actions that are actually allowed by federal regulation and individual state laws.”
With distracted driving becoming more of a concern, increasing numbers of employers are implementing cell phone policies. A May 29 New York Times article highlighted policies at building products company Owens Corning and petroleum giant Shell International.
The article says oil companies were the earliest implementers of policies governing use of cell phones while driving. The article quotes Shell’s global road safety manager as saying the company noticed an increase in fatalities in the late 1990s that were attributed to employees using cell phones while driving. The company’s global policy was put in place in 2002 and strengthened in 2005.
Supermarket chain Safeway also has attracted attention because of its policy. A company official was featured at a 2011 event in which U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stressed the importance of the role employers play in promoting safe driving behavior. Safeway’s policy prohibits the company’s truck drivers from talking or texting on cell phones and even from using hands-free devices while driving.
Another company, wireless provider AT&T, is going beyond company policy and launching an effort to encourage all Americans to stop texting while driving. The company is inviting the public to make a lifelong commitment on September 19 to never again text and drive.
A statement from the company about the campaign outlines a number of initiatives, including encouraging the 240,000 AT&T employees to take the pledge, asking its suppliers to take the pledge, a social media campaign, television ads, and working to provide a toolkit of no-texting-while-driving information for high school students.
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Efforts against cell phone use while driving go beyond company policies. Laws and regulations also tackle the issue. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has informed employers that they violate the Occupational Safety and Health Act if they require employees to text while driving or if they structure work so that texting and driving is a practical necessity. OSHA accepts confidential complaints from workers who feel their employers are in violation.
In addition to OSHA, President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2009 banning all civilian federal government employees from texting while driving on government business. Plus, contractors and grant recipients were encouraged to adopt no-texting policies.
The U.S. Transportation Department announced in 2010 that an interpretation of standing rules prohibits texting by drivers of commercial vehicles such as big trucks and buses.
State legislatures are also taking action. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) tracks cell phone and texting laws. The organization’s website says that as of August 2012, 39 states and Washington, D.C., ban text messaging while driving, and 10 states and Washington, D.C., ban talking on a handheld cell phone while driving. In addition, cell phone use by novice drivers is restricted in 32 states and Washington, D.C., according to the IIHS.
Tammy Binford writes and edits news alerts and newsletter articles on labor and employment law topics for BLR web and print publications. In addition, she writes for HR Hero Line and Diversity Insight, two of the ezines and blogs found on HRHero.com.