Rising Concerns for Employers with Distracted Drivers

By Lehr Middlebrooks Vreeland & Thompson, P.C.

July 31, 2018

There are many industries that require their employees to drive either their own vehicles or company-owned vehicles as a part of their job duties. With the rise of smartphones and the ability to do multiple things while driving, drivers, employers, and state legislatures have grown more and more concerned with distracted drivers. Currently, 16 states have banned the use of a  handheld  cell phone while driving. Generally, these laws prohibit a driver from physically holding a cell phone; writing, sending, or reading text-based communications; watching a video or movie; or recording a broadcast while driving. Essentially, the laws only allow drivers to make and receive phone calls in a hands-free manner. While some drivers  might find these laws intrusive, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finds these laws warranted. For example, in 2016, distracted driving caused approximately 3,450 deaths.

Employers face a heightened risk of liability when  their employees drive distracted. When a distracted driver causes an accident and harms others as a result of their own distracted driving, it is highly common for victims to not only sue the driver, but also the driver’s employer. The rise of lawsuits and jury awards against employers  for their employees’ distracted driving is causing employers to under go serious efforts to address and prevent districted driving by their employees.

Ultimately, the first step in combating distracted driving by employees is to develop a safe driving policy that outlines the dos and don’ts of mobile device use and other driving distractions and impairments. Formal, written, and consistently enforced policies will aid in  mitigating your liability as an employer and protecting the safety of your employees and other drivers on the road. Employers should be specific as to what is prohibited and permitted while operating a vehicle on company business and what the consequences will be if the employee violates the  policy. Employers also need to communicate the policy to employees early and often, and have supervisors ensure that employees fully understand the policy.

At the most basic level, these policies should reflect any state law regulations on distracted driving. Even if your state does not have such a law in place, the easiest way to protect yourself and your employees is to prohibit use of mobile phones while driving on company business,  
driving in company-provided vehicles, or when making any work-related communications. Many policies that prohibit all cell phone use, hands-free or not, allow employees to first find a safe place to park their vehicle before initiating or responding to any calls, text messages, or emails. Employers also require employees to program devices to send automatic responses from their cell phones to respond to calls or text messages while the employee is driving. Employers may also  require or provide hands-free technology (like Bluetooth), but some research indicates that even hands-free communication can result in distracted driving. Some policies also extend their cell phone use prohibition to all work-related activities, including after-hours or work-sponsored events.

Because our cell phones will only become smarter and will continue to provide us with instant communication and entertainment, this issue is not going away. If you do not have a safe driving policy in place, now is the time to create one. While businesses and their lawyers are always concerned with mitigating liability, safety is the paramount concern, and this is a first step all employers can take.

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