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Cell Phones and Driving: A Dangerous Mix?

The use of cell phones while driving has become a hotly debated safety issue. Yet few business travelers are fully aware of the risks. Here are some ways to ensure employees' safety, avoid accidents, reduce the associated costs, and minimize liability claims.

Fleet vehicle accidents continue to be the leading cause of work-related deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. When fatal auto accidents make the news headlines (whether work-related or otherwise), they often involve drunk drivers, excessive speeding, large-scale chain reactions, or other sensationalized events. Yet, the cause of many auto accidents is a simple matter of driver distraction--and one of the most hotly debated driving distractions today is the cell phone.

Many states and municipalities have considered legislation to ban or limit cell phone use while driving--fueled primarily by fatal accidents occurring within their jurisdictions. To date, no state has been successful in passing such legislation, although a number of municipalities have enacted their own local ordinances. In addition, at least 13 countries (including Switzerland, Israel, Great Britain, and Taiwan) have enacted legislation banning or restricting cell phone use while driving.

Even if legislation takes hold on a wide scale, though, the number of drivers using cell phones will not drop significantly overnight. Just as it took many years for the majority of drivers to comply with seat belt laws, compliance with cell phone ordinances or legislation is likely to be slow and inconsistent, at best.

Fleet drivers are more likely to alter their cell phone use habits if they are adequately informed of the risks involved--and then given realistic alternatives that they can apply in their travels. Yet, despite the increased media and government attention, few fleet drivers are fully aware of the risks posed by cell phone use while driving or the techniques that can reduce those risks. For that reason, many organizations are taking a prudent and proactive approach to providing their fleet drivers with both education and practical strategies regarding cell phone use.

Know The Risks

Cell phones are an inevitable part of daily life for most business travelers. They are especially helpful in emergencies and are critical tools for sales and service representatives who must stay in regular contact with others, even during their travels.

But there are risks involved in using a cell phone while driving. A Toronto study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997 concluded that the risk of an accident while talking on a cell phone may be the same as driving under the influence of alcohol, at a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent. Another study, published in the Accident Analysis and Prevention Journal, found a 34 percent increase in the risk of a collision among drivers with cell phones; moreover, drivers who used their cell phones while driving for more than 50 minutes per month increased their risk by a factor of five.

Precisely what is it that contributes to the increased accident risk associated with cell phone use? Many people assume it stems primarily from the mechanics of using a phone--the act of dialing a number, for instance. But the Toronto study found no significant difference in risk among drivers using hands-free models. Besides mechanical operation, there are several other factors that lead drivers to be distracted when using a cell phone.

* Nature of the conversation. If the conversation is heated or of a serious nature--as many business-related conversations are--then the driver is apt to focus attention on the subject matter, rather than the road.

* Length of the conversation. When stuck in traffic or taking a lengthy trip, drivers can be tempted to engage in long conversations to pass the time. Long conversations divert drivers' attention toward the call and away from the road.

* The interruption factor. It's easy to be distracted by a ringing phone--whether at home, at work or on the road. In fact, a 1998 study by the Japanese National Police Agency found that many cell phone-related crashes occurred while the driver was responding to the interruption of an incoming call. This is particularly true if the call occurs when a driver is challenged by stressful road conditions, such as heavy traffic, construction zones, or inclement weather.

Understanding the causes that contribute to cell phone-related accidents is just one step in the process; it is equally important to recognize the results of such accidents.

Any fleet vehicle accident can result in property damage, personal injuries or fatalities, costly workers' compensation claims, reduced productivity, and lost revenue. When cell phones are involved, additional issues such as liability and claims of negligent entrustment are more likely to come into play.

Reduce The Risks

For organizations that employ fleet drivers, there is clearly a responsibility to balance the practical need for cell phones with the equally important need to ensure employees' safety, avoid accident risks, reduce the associated costs, and minimize liability claims. Several steps will help achieve these critical goals.

* Develop a cell phone policy. If your company doesn't already have one in place, be sure to make it a priority. To ensure the policy is practical, legal, and effective, assemble the right team to develop it--including representatives from fleet management, risk management, human resources, legal, and the functional groups that will be affected by the policy (such as sales or service).

The nature of your policy will depend greatly on your organization's risk tolerance. Some companies have eliminated company-provided cell phones altogether; if employees opt to purchase a phone on their own, these organizations typically refuse to reimburse the expense.

Other organizations permit and/or provide cell phones, but specify how and when they may be used. Whatever your final decision, be sure the policy is clear, specific, and comprehensive.

One specific area to consider covering in your policy is cell phone use in an emergency. If you choose to permit it, clearly define what constitutes an emergency. In our fast-paced world, the term "emergency" is often applied to less-than-critical situations. True emergencies include a crime in progress, a serious vehicle accident with injuries, or a disabled vehicle that is left on the road or in an otherwise hazardous position.

* Communicate and reinforce the policy. Provide all new hires with a copy of the policy in writing and review it during their initial orientation--just as you would any other company policy. Include cell phone safety on the agenda of your driver safety training programs--or cover it as a brief, standalone topic at a regional meeting or other gathering. Send periodic reminders via a newsletter or other communication vehicle.

In extreme cases--where you suspect cell phone use is contributing to accidents or other incidents on the road--you can request an employee's cell phone records. Even if the employee owns the phone and pays the bill, the phone records can be obtained without prior consent in many instances. (For your state's specific laws governing access to phone records, check with your legal department.)

* Educate drivers about the risks. Recognize that many people are avid cell phone users and are not likely to change their habits without a compelling reason. When you communicate your cell phone policy, frame it in the context of the risks that cell phones pose. Emphasize the increased odds of an accident, the potential liability for the company, and the possibility of personal injury or even fatalities in extreme instances. Discuss the specific risk factors, so drivers understand the behaviors that may increase their odds of causing or becoming involved in a cell phone-related collision.

As with any form of education, build in periodic reminders to reinforce the message and make cell phone safety part of your drivers' mindsets. E-mail messages, newsletter articles, and brief seminars can be effective and efficient delivery vehicles.

* Provide drivers with practical alternatives. One of the most effective ways to modify behavior is to provide an alternative that is realistic and achievable. Simply stating that drivers may never use a cell phone is neither. Instead, provide a number of options that balance risk against the practical need to communicate.

For instance, you might permit drivers to use the phone only when safely pulled off the road. Keep in mind, though, that the shoulder is generally not a safe place to stop and should be reserved for emergencies. It is better for drivers to come to a complete stop in a parking lot, rest area or other safe place. Another helpful technique is to keep the phone turned off while driving, to avoid the distraction of an incoming call. Many models are equipped with voice mail or call forwarding, allowing the driver to check messages and return calls at a later time.

As you tackle the subject of cell phone use, remember that it is just one element of a larger risk management issue: the growing use of office technologies within fleet vehicles. As cars increasingly arrive equipped with Internet access, fax machines, and other electronic conveniences, the level of driver distraction is certain to increase--bringing with it greater risks and the potential for higher accident rates. By developing a cell phone policy for fleet drivers now, you will be one step ahead of the game as the "cars of the future" become reality.

Kaz Zielinski is programs manager for Advanced Driver Training Services Inc. in King of Prussia, Pa., which provides a full range of products and services to keep fleet drivers safe on the road.
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Publication:Risk & Insurance
Date:Sep 15, 2000
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