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Distracted driving has resulted in thousands of deaths and insurance industry and safety experts advise companies to closely monitor their employees’ driving habits.
This April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, which was introduced as a resolution and passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said that 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers in 2015, the most recent year that statistics are available. Experts say increasing use of cellphones, texting, and complex car "infotainment" systems are some of the factors linked to distracted driving.
Lisa Robinson, Chicago-based senior program manager with the National Safety Council, which is headquartered in Itasca, Illinois, said that transportation is the No. 1 reason for occupational fatalities.
“People seem to want to think that it’s trip, slips and falls and it’s not,” she said. “Cellphones probably are one of the biggest distractions but we’ve got a lot of other things going on in the vehicle.”
“People tend to think of texting as the key concern and cellphone use as the key concern,” said Christopher Hayes, second vice president, transportation, risk control for Travelers Cos. Inc. in Hartford, Connecticut, “but really anything that takes your attention off the forward roadway is distracted driving.”
The most recent edition of the annual Travelers Risk Index found that 85% of people surveyed said it is extremely risky to use smartphones or tablets while driving, yet nearly a quarter of respondents said they do it.
Sixty-one percent of those who respond to personal texts, emails and calls while driving do so because there might be an emergency, while 23% of those who said they respond to personal texts, emails and calls while driving do so because they are afraid of missing out on something important.
Mr. Hayes added that this could include using the phone for texting or navigation, or “you could be having a conversation that makes you cognitively disengaged from the roadway.”
“It could be things as simple as eating, drinking, grooming or looking at something outside the roadway,” he said. “It’s not a new phenomenon at all. Distracted driving has been around since people first started moving around in vehicles — looking at a billboard, looking at an animal on the side of the roadway have all been part of distracted driving since we started moving around on four wheels.”
Experts encouraged employers to take steps to ensure that their employees are not posing a danger to themselves or others on the road by driving while distracted.
Mr. Hayes said employers could run a motor-vehicles record report on new hires and give them an informal driving test.
“Have them drive around the block,” he said. “Have them drive you to lunch. That might be a good way to see how they drive. If, on the interview, they answer their phone, that’s a good sign they’re going to do it while driving for you.”
Peter VanDyne, Milwaukee-based technical director of loss control at Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., said there are studies that indicate that people who talk on the phone while driving aren’t as productive as they think they are.
“People don’t recall details,” he said. “They get some facts wrong because they’re distracted from the conversation by trying to drive at the same time. You have a hazard from driving, but you also have a loss of productivity because things are wrong, and they have to be redone when you try to conduct business while you drive.”
Distractions increase as vehicles introduce more technology, Scott Fouts, vice president and risk services manager for the South region with Hub International Ltd. in Charlotte, North Carolina, said, adding that companies should establish a formal distracted driving policy.
“A lot of the companies I work with have an annual review process making sure drivers are reading policy and procedures,” he said. “Or maybe they have some sort of telematics that actually shuts down the cellphone in the vehicle. It has to be cultural change within the organization where it’s almost like a zero-tolerance policy.”
"If you’re having a lot of rear end collisions," Mr. Fouts said, "or you’re having a lot of distracted driving collisions and underwriting is aware of it, they’re going to send out their own loss control folks or they’re going to ask the client upfront, 'well, you seem to have an uptick in distracted driving, what are you doing?'"
“From an underwriting perspective, it is extremely important when we’re going out to assess new business opportunities that we are looking at the quality of the company safety programs,” said Amy Lochhead, Atlanta-based vice president and division underwriting manager at Liberty Mutual.
Ms. Lochhead added that “the most important thing is accountability, and it starts from the top down.”
“If you don’t have a senior management that’s interested in safety, you can have a great safety program on paper or in a book or a manual, but it’s never going to have the impact if you don’t have that accountability from the top down,” she said.
David Golden, assistant vice president of commercial lines with the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America in Chicago, said one the things underwriters are doing is “helping is to improve management quality” when it comes to training drivers.
“Somebody who’s running a widget manufacturing business knows how to make widgets,” he said. “They don’t necessarily know how to coach their truck drivers who are delivering the widgets on being safe drivers.”
At any given daylight moment in America, about 660,000 drivers are using cellphones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, the U.S. Department of Transportation says.