Part Two of our series on workplace environmental safety and health focuses on the increasing dangers of driving while distracted.
The National Safety Council promotes April as Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and while this may be a topic most of us associate with teens and other irresponsible drivers, the unfortunate truth is that it also affects our workplaces. At any given time, more than 800,000 drivers in the US are using their cell phones while driving, many of these while on the job. In fact, more workers are killed every year in motor vehicle crashes than any other cause, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
What is “distracted driving?”
Most of us are guilty of distracted driving, or driving while engaged in any other activity that diverts our attention away from the road: eating, drinking, using our GPS or MP3 player, talking to our passengers, or using a cell phone or texting. All distractions, no matter how minor, increase the likelihood of injury or fatality.
Is it really that dangerous?
The simple answer is yes. According to the Federal government, in 2009, almost 5500 people were killed in crashes involving distracted drivers and nearly 500,000 were injured. Drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to be in an accident serious enough to be hurt. Using a cell phone while driving—even hands-free—reduces the brain activity associated with driving by 37% and delays reaction time as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit.
Texting is the worst culprit. Requiring both visual and manual manipulation, texting while driving creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted. Sending or receiving a text takes your eyes off the road for nearly five seconds, or the equivalent of driving the length of a football field at 55 mph while blind. More texting leads to more crashes: with each additional million text messages, fatalities from distracted driving rose more than 75%.
The bottom line is that no matter how good a driver you are, talking on the phone or texting while driving dramatically increases your risk of motor vehicle injury or fatality.
What are the workplace implications of distracted driving?
The risks of distracted driving for employers are significant. Not only does distracted driving pose a real threat to the health and safety of workers, if an employee causes an accident while doing business on a cell phone, the company could be held liable for damages. Recent settlements have ranged from $500,000 to $5 million dollars.
“It is well recognized that texting while driving dramatically increases the risk of a motor vehicle injury or fatality. We are asking employers to send a clear message to workers and supervisors that your company neither requires nor condones texting while driving.” David Michaels, PhD, MPH, Assistant Secretary, OSHA
If your employees use cell phones or other hand-held devices, you should have a policy prohibiting them from doing so while driving. The policy should include all employees, not just fleet, delivery, or commercial drivers, and should:
- Address the dangers and varieties of distracted driving.
- Ban use of cell phones and hand-held devices while driving, even hands-free devices, which have been shown to be no safer than hand-held devices.
- Outline what employees should do if they receive a call or text while driving (e.g. ask the caller to wait while the employee pulls over).
- Describe the consequences for policy violations, including disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment.
- The National Safety Council offers a free Cell Phone Policy Kit for employers who are interested in implementing distracted driving policies.
What can I do?
First and foremost, take a pledge to drive without using your cell phone – for any reason – and urge your family, friends, and coworkers to do the same.
Second, encourage your employer to implement total bans on cell phone use while driving for all employees. While cell phones are ubiquitous in the workplace, their use in vehicles doesn’t have to be.
Finally, inform others who call you while driving that you care about them and would be happy to continue your conversation with them once they can do so safely from their destination.
By increasing our awareness, driving without using our phones, and implementing workplace policies that prohibit hand-held device use while driving, we can save lives and reduce costly liabilities.