Distracted Driving

Most of us have found ourselves in a vehicle where the driver was so involved in a conversation – eye contact, hand gestures, emotions – that we were uncomfortable, perhaps even fearful. Those feelings were probably quite justified because a distracted driver is a dangerous driver. In fact, 16% of highway fatalities and 21% of injury crashes in 2008 (most recent data available) involved distracted drivers. (Source: 1)

Distractions come in many forms. The three main types are cognitive (mind not on driving), visual (eyes not on the road), and manual (hands not on the steering wheel). Common activities involving all three varieties include reading (newspaper, map, book, etc.); grooming; fiddling with CD, radio, or Mp3 player; eating; drinking; and, for some, talking. The first two are nearly universally conceded to be unwise while driving; the next four introduce danger in proportion to the amount of time and focus the driver directs away from the actual driving process.

The most dangerous distraction, however, is cell phone use. The perils of texting are obvious: the mind is on the message, the eyes are on the screen, and the hands are busy with little keys – driving has now taken a back seat. While using a cell phone may not seem as distracting, especially when hands-free devices are used, studies (Source: 2) have shown that driving while using either a hands-free or hand-held cell phone is dangerous. It delays the driver’s reactions more than a blood alcohol content of 0.08% and increases the chance of crash four-fold. Driving while using a cell phone, even with a hands-free device, is driving impaired.

It’s no wonder that the Department of Transportation has taken a clear and aggressive position, stating, “Distracted driving is a serious, life-threatening practice and we will not rest until we stop it.” Many states are in agreement and have passed anti-distraction legislation, but no current law is stringent enough to affect the desired change as they permit hands-free devices, contrary to the recommendations of numerous studies that clearly demonstrate that no significant reduction in risk is provided by their use. So, on the one hand, such laws are a positive step because in jurisdictions where they have been enacted the use of hand-held cell phone or texting while driving constitutes prima facie negligence with regard to a vehicular crash. On the other hand, such laws reinforce the erroneous belief that hands-free devices are useful in preventing distracted driving. Only when legislation reflects science will it become effective in reducing this life-threatening practice.

OSHA has also gotten involved, encouraging employers to implement policies banning the use of cell phones while driving company vehicles as part of their organization’s safety program.

Most people recognize the dangers of texting while driving. However, many employees, managers included, are extremely dependent on their cell phones and are concerned that a ban will negatively impact productivity and convenience. Most are also wrongly convinced that they can drive safely while using a cell phone, especially if hands-free – after all, they have been doing it for years. However, getting from one place to another without having a crash is not the same as driving safely.

Once aware of the facts, the plan of action should be clear: we should not let employees drive while technologically impaired. The following are suggested:

  • Implement a safety policy banning texting and all use of cell phones (including hands-free) and similar devices while driving organization vehicles or driving any vehicle on organization business
  • Implement a pull-over-to-answer rule for any staff who may need to be contacted when they are off-site and potentially driving
  • Impose significant consequences for noncompliant behavior; these may need to be progressive, at least at first
  • Encourage staff to behave similarly on their own time

We ban texting and cell phone use for lifeguards so that harm won’t result because they fail to respond to an emergency. We should ban texting and cell phone use for those who drive so that such actions are not the actual cause of an emergency. If it is crucial for lifeguards, who are not the cause of harm, to be attentive, how much more important is it for drivers, who risk bringing harm to themselves and innocent others every time they drive a vehicle, to be at least as attentive?

Be responsible – protect your organization, your staff, and your community. Encourage and assist your staff to be responsible. Prohibit all cell phone use and texting while driving organization vehicles or while driving personal vehicles on organization business.