Employers Face Liability Risks for Distracted Driving
In a recent survey by AT&T [PDF], 49 percent of adults admitted to texting while driving. Distracted drivingdriving while texting, talking on mobile phones, or browsing the webcauses accidents costing billions of dollars each year. And when drivers use mobile devices behind the wheel of a company vehicle, their employers can get stuck with the bill.
Aegis Mobility was founded in 2006 to address the problem of mobile phone use in vehicles. Matt Howard, Aegiss chief marketing officer, says theres been a rapid increase in the number of distracted driver cases in the last decade. Howard recently collaborated with a corporate defense firm to publish a white paper on how employers are coping with the risk: Employee Distracted Driving: Understanding Your Business Risk and Liability [PDF].
The prevalence of smartphone and tablets use in the last five years has increased the temptation for drivers to take their attention off the road. The richness of the devices and the quality of their applications means they compete more effectively for human attention than ever before, says Howard.
And now mobile gadgets are entering the realm of employment law and corporate liability. When these devices are issued to employees in the scope of work, says Howard, youve got the potential for what the Department of Transportation would suggest is a 23 times higher likelihood that an accident will occur.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration prohibit regulated drivers from texting and using hand-held devices while operating a vehicle. Thirty-nine states and Washington, D.C., have laws preventing texting while driving, and 10 states and D.C. prohibit making calls without hands-free technology. State laws are a minimum standard, says Howard.
Verdicts such as last years $21 million in damages awarded to a plaintiff hit by the driver of a Coca-Cola Company truck are popping up across the country. The large jury awards are getting employers attention.
According to Howard, there are approximately 18 million commercial fleet vehicles in the United States. In 2008, the National Safety Council estimated that 15 percent of commercial fleet operators in the U.S. had some type of policy with regard to employee use of mobile devices while driving company vehicles.
Aegiss more recent surveys of fleet operators found that number is now as high as 80 percent. Its infrequent that I talk to an employer today who hasnt adopted some form of policy for what employees are permitted to do or not do with regard to mobile device use while driving, says Howard. The reason theyre adopting such policies is because they realize there is exposure.
But simply having a policy on the books isnt enough to protect a company. In the Coca-Cola case, jurors found the companys mobile device policy was vague.
The policies we see tend to be all over the map, usually depending on what the employers business is, Howard says. And weve even seen employers have different policies in place for sales people versus delivery people. Other employers have adopted the National Safety Councils recommendation of zero tolerance. Dont use your phone at all while driving, he says, end of discussion.
One of Aegiss clients recently issued tablets to 12,000 employees who drive company vans. The tablets support a workflow automation application. The companys policy is not to allow drivers to use the computer while driving for anything other than turn-by-turn navigation, he says.
Aegis provides the employer with technology that ensures compliance with that policy. When the vehicles are moving faster than a certain speed, says Howard, the devices will only operate in a way that is consistent with the employers policy.
Employers in the commercial fleet industry have used various types of technology to monitor and manage employee behavior for years, he says. Doing so with respect to their use of mobile phones or tablet computers while driving a company vehicle is a logical extension of that.
Deciding which policy suits the individual employer is a more significant business decision than many executives might think. The practical reality is that safety is sometimes difficult to sell to an employer, says Howard. But in light of expanding commercial fleet regulations and high-dollar mobile device litigation, employers are increasingly coming to the conclusion that its to their benefit to moderate use of mobile devices.
Hes starting to see employers determine that although productivity is important to their bottom line, balancing productivity with risk management is also important. Every employer has a different appetite for risk, he adds, but the undeniable truth is that this is risky behavior for the employer and the employee.