Across the nation, employers are telling workers to hang up and drive. Many employers are banning the use of cell phones while driving, and it appears likely that OSHA, the federal worker safety agency, will require such a ban within the next few years. Other strategies including the newest cell phone technology can help employers limit liability from cell phone use and improve productivity.
Employers may be liable for an accident caused by an inattentive employee on company business or driving a company vehicle. The potential liability exceeds $10 million if a texting employee causes the death of several people, especially children. This is true whether the employer furnishes the phone or not. Personal as well as work-related calls can be a liability for the employer.
Cell phone usage while driving is a major hazard, causing many traffic accidents each year. Traffic accidents are the major cause of fatal workplace accidents, so it makes sense for companies to ban the use of phones altogether. Some employers have gone further and banned the use of phones in other situations, including on factory floors, in restaurants and other workplaces. Such a ban increases safety and productivity. As long as the ban applies to all employees in similar jobs, it is not illegal discrimination.
Texting while driving is a particular problem among younger employees, according to New Jersey attorney Steven Adler. The potential liability for employers is enormous. He suggests that employers train every worker on the company cell phone policy during orientation, and regularly remind workers, especially younger workers, of the policy.
The newest cell phone technology can aid employers in enforcing a ban on cell phones while driving. Many phones have GPS chips that allow the employer to track the phone. A phone that is moving faster than 5 mph is usually a sign that the employee is talking or texting while driving.
Some software allows an employer to lock outgoing calls when the phone is in motion. This feature still permits an employee to dial 911 on the phone in case of an emergency. It automatically directs incoming calls to voice mail. If an employee tries to override this feature, the phone emails an alert to the employer.
While Bluetooth devices and other hands-free options are increasingly popular, they do not greatly improve safety. The major hazard of cell phone use is that the driver is distracted. Most drivers are able to handle a simple conversation and a routine drive at the same time. However, if the conversation becomes more heated, it demands more of the driver’s attention and leaves fewer cognitive resources to handle driving. Any unexpected event, even a left-hand turn or yellow light, can result in a fatal accident when the driver is distracted.
Many employers find they receive lower rates from insurers when they disable employee cell phones while driving. On the other hand, an employer may be found negligent if the company permits the use of cell phones, or even requires employees to stay in touch with the office by cell phone, while driving.
The best advice, according to a panel of attorneys, is for employees to ignore cell phones, laptops and Blackberries while driving.