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Distracted driving policy interest increases with lawsuits

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Distracted driving policy interest increases with lawsuits

Recent suits against companies whose employees were involved in vehicle accidents while using cellphones is raising employers' interest in distracted driving policies.

After an accident involving a corporate-owned vehicle, “It's now routine for the plaintiffs bar to check the cellphone records of the driver,” said W. Michael McDonald, vp of enterprise risk management at Quality Distribution Inc. in Tampa, Fla.

“There's a lot more attention given to it today than there was in the past, and ultimately a lot of that is being driven by recent litigation or court judgments,” said Rich Bleser, senior vp in the workforce strategies group and practice leader of the fleet specialty group at Marsh Risk Consulting in Milwaukee.

Most recently, a Texas jury handed down a $21 million verdict last month against Coca-Cola Refreshments USA Inc. in a case involving a woman whose automobile was struck by a Coca-Cola employee driving a company-owned vehicle while talking on a hands-free device. Among other things, the suit alleged that Coca-Cola's driver cellphone policy was vague and ambiguous.

Coca-Cola Refreshments has said its policy complied with Texas law and that it disagrees with the verdict. The Coca-Cola bottler and distributor has indicated it will appeal.

According to some, policies restricting drivers to hands-free devices as required by some state laws don't go far enough.

“Just following the law is not enough,” said David Teater, senior director of the National Safety Council in Itasca, Ill. “In 2009 we looked at all the research around this issue and decided that people should not be using cellphones while driving. It's way too dangerous,” he said.

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“It's becoming best safety practice,” Mr. Teater said. “We think about 20% of the Fortune 500 companies have these bans in place already.”

The NSC estimates that driving while talking on a cellphone—handheld or hands-free—increases the risk of an accident by four times. It also estimates that 21% of all vehicle crashes in 2010 involved talking on cellphones.

Mr. Teater noted that the issue is a complicated one for many businesses that rely on cellphones to stay in touch with their drivers. Still, he said, “We recommend that businesses put in place policies that prohibit employees from using cellphones while driving, period.”

“Because of some recent litigation, everybody is trying to get on board really quick” with distracted driving policies, said Bert Mayo, vp of risk control at Lockton Cos. L.L.C. in Denver.

“We've been pushing this for years,” Mr. Mayo said. “Statistically, the data's been out there for years that you shouldn't be doing anything else and driving.”

A prohibition on using cellphones while driving is at the heart of Quality Distribution's distracted driving policy. “Basically our (standard operating procedure) is that you do not use communications devices while you are in transit. You're driving,” said Mr. McDonald. If drivers need to use the phone, they must pull over before doing so, he said.

Mr. Mayo said companies' efforts to address distracted driving should be threefold. “One, have a policy, a written policy. Two, have the training on that policy.” That training should include not just drivers but also employees such as dispatchers, fleet managers and driver supervisors, he said. “And three, enforce it.”

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Likewise, David Barry, national technical director, casualty risk control, at Willis North America Inc. in Overland Park, Kan., said Willis advises clients to have a written distracted driving policy, conduct formal training on the policy and have a formal enforcement vehicle for the policy.

“We've actually created several templated best practices policies that we can give to clients, and from those we can tailor it to their individual operations,” Mr. Barry said. He added that he favors keeping the policies as simple and straightforward as possible. “What most companies have said is if the vehicle is in movement, you're not allowed to use your wireless communications device,” Mr. Barry said.

Marsh's Mr. Bleser noted that many companies that have had policies related to cellphones are expanding them to take in a broader range of potential driver distractions. “Today vs. two years ago, there's a lot more emphasis on having very strong and comprehensive driver distraction policies,” he said.

And, Mr. Bleser said, it's important for companies to recognize that drivers aren't the only problem. It used to be routine at most companies for dispatchers to call drivers; now, recognizing the risks, many companies are developing new dispatching procedures to eliminate those calls to drivers and reduce the risk, he said.

Mr. McDonald said training on Quality Distribution's distracted driving policy begins early on. “Generally, I would have to say that we start right at the beginning. This is one of the issues that we cover in our driver training school,” he said.

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“Enforcement is a different matter, like it is in a lot of things,” Mr. McDonald said. “That comes down to training, disciplinary actions, retraining.” Disciplinary action against drivers and dispatchers found violating the company's policy can go all the way to dismissal, Mr. McDonald said, adding, “We do take it very seriously.”

“It's not really rocket science. It's a lot of training, retraining,” he said. “That's what safety's all about: a lot of repetition.”

“Companies that educate people on the dangers of this don't seem to have a lot of enforcement problems,” said the National Safety Council's Mr. Teater.

Willis' Mr. Barry said some insurers have begun considering companies' approach to distracted driving in their underwriting, a factor that's also driving employers' interest in addressing the issue.

“Certain carriers have this as one of their hot-button underwriting topics,” he said.

But, he added, “It's something that I'm really recommending to all my clients as a good business best practice, whether the insurance company requires it or not.”