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Distracted driving

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Distracted driving

It shouldn’t take an accident followed by an expensive trial to convince businesses to implement effective policies on distracted driving. And, even if the company has a policy, it also shouldn’t take a distracted driving case to make the business enforce it.

Attorneys specializing in personal injury and employment at the law firm of Lewitt, Hackman, Shapiro, Marshall & Harlan in Encino, Calif., cite that all too often employers wish they had implemented a policy after an accident occurs. They say from the plaintiff side, that’s what attorneys look for, as does the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).

Negligence in not effectively enforcing a policy will put the company’s drivers on the losing side, and cases are surfacing to prove it. In Ford v. McGrogan & International Paper, for example, a woman’s arm had to be amputated after a driver for International Paper allegedly rear-ended the plaintiff’s car while on a cell phone. The company had a policy banning employees from using cell phones while driving, but still had to pay $5.2 million to settle the case.

Cases where a company had a policy but an employee ignored it can be avoided.

What distraction?

A distraction is any activity that reduces visual connection and understanding of changing traffic conditions and takes a driver’s attention away from the road.

For tire retailers who have employees who drive delivery vehicles, courtesy cars or service trucks, driver distractions can turn into millions of dollars in losses due to accidents and the ensuing injuries to drivers and damage to vehicles, as well as any other motorists involved.

Distracted driving comes in three forms: cognitive, visual, and manual. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), cognitive distractions are when a driver’s mind isn’t focused on driving. Visual distractions occur when the driver looks at anything but the road ahead. Manual distractions occur when the driver takes one or both hands off the wheel.

Recognizing the biggest problem

Of the many types of driver distractions, texting or talking on a cell phone while driving is still a primary concern. The reason for this, according to the National Safety Council (NSC), is due to risk exposure.

The NSC focuses on the activity that causes the most crashes, in which people will be more often hurt or injured. It believes the greatest cause of distracted driving crashes is when a driver is using a mobile communication device, such as a smartphone or cell phone.

The concern with cell phones is not because everything we do on a phone is the most risky thing we can do while driving. While talking on a cell phone while driving is less risky than texting or emailing, the issue is truly how often drivers are exposed to the risk.

If there is a really bad risk out there, but we are never exposed to it, it will not cause many crashes. But, if there is a moderate risk out there and we are continually exposed to it, such as cell phone conversations while driving, then it causes a lot of crashes, reports the NSC.

NHTSA estimates 10% of all drivers at any given moment are distracted by a cell phone. This greatly increases the risk exposure from this activity.

Advanced Driver Training Services (ADTS) acknowledges the many other forms of driver distraction, and agrees with the NSC that the number of people currently using a cell phone, or texting while driving, is a much bigger problem in comparison with other distraction concerns.

Numerous studies have shown that talking on the phone — hands-free or handheld — increases the risk of being in a crash, similar to a person who has a 0.08 blood alcohol concentration, which is the assumed level of intoxication throughout North America, according to ADTS. Drunk driving, and its impact, is recognized throughout the world as a severe danger on the roadways. And, yet, although numerous studies have shown that people are as likely to crash as a drunk driver if they are using the phone, people still continue this activity at epidemic proportions.

The mental aspect of driver distraction is critical and “inattention blindness” is a very real phenomenon.

ADTS reports drivers can look at something, and if they are thinking of something else, they won’t even realize that what they are looking at is there. The phrase “I never even saw the other car” is a very common statement made by drivers who pulled into the path of an oncoming vehicle. In reality, they did see the oncoming car, but because their mind was elsewhere, it did not register. This loss of focus is a major contributor to many crashes.

Statistics show that a driver taking his eyes off the road for just two seconds can double the risk of a crash. According to a spokesman for Driving Dynamics, the leading contributors of this issue are data entry (dialing, texting, GPS, etc.), engaging in in-vehicle activities (controlling children and pets, reaching for an item, grooming, eating, etc.), roadside diversions (billboards, disabled vehicles, “rubbernecking,” sports events, etc.), and drowsiness.

The safety experts agree that cognitive research has shown that the “mind’s eye” becomes visually impaired when engaged in certain nonessential driving activities, in particular, engaging in phone conversations while driving.

As a phone call proceeds, brain activities essential for safe driving are redirected to support phone conversation interactions and the driver, from a cognitive perspective, sees less and less of the changing traffic conditions and cannot respond in a timely manner, if at all.

Getting drivers onboard

You should consider a dealership policy completely banning handheld and hands-free cell-phone use. The NSC has a “Cell Phone Policy Kit” available at no cost on its website to help you create such a policy.

The best safety practice is a distracted driving policy that prohibits all cell phone or mobile communications device use while the vehicle is in motion, reports the NSC.

Driving Dynamics also recommended a no-exception policy in which supervisors are also held accountable. While habits do not change overnight, for long-term results, work on getting buy-in from everyone in the organization and support this initiative by consistently getting the message out.

Offer practical, easy-to-follow tips on how to stay productive safely, explain how everyone benefits, and share results. Consider rewarding employees for good safety records.

According to ADTS, you cannot simply tell a driver “don’t talk on the phone or text,” you have to tell them why and provide some solutions. Letting drivers know the reality of the risk is a start. You should also develop strict policies that have follow-through in the event a driver does use the phone while driving.

Driving Dynamics recommended that you go beyond the checklist approach. While it is important and meaningful to have a safety policy in place addressing distracted driving, in addition to the policy, tracking violations, and resulting enforcement, any person or group charged with helping the organization control and reduce risky driving behavior should consider an ongoing safety messaging campaign to bring this subject to the forefront and keep it there.

In essence, market safety to your employees with the goal of creating a shared and valued culture of safety.

Another tip is telling drivers to put phones on total silence when driving. If they hear the phone ring while driving, they will be tempted to answer, the experts note.

Creating a policy

The following steps will help prevent accidents caused by cell phone use while on the road — and in the shop.

  1. Engage in internal communications. Tell employees that a cell-phone policy is going to be issued. Hold open meetings, show examples from other companies, and get feedback on appropriate penalties. Review distracted driving facts and show that top management supports it.
  2. Make safety part of your company’s credo. According to a Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS) survey, companies with the lowest crashes per million miles (CPMM) issue monthly reports to their employees, track crashes, have safety-oriented messages throughout company statements and training, issue full bans on cell phones while driving, and share the details of any accident — whether or not it involves an injury — with the entire staff.
  3. Plan tracking protocols. How will your company keep track of employee cell-phone use? There is cell phone safety software on the market to consider. Also, you may want to review call logs for company-issued phones.
  4. Write out a policy. Make sure to follow individual state laws. Assess severity of punishment: 83% of companies with low CPMM respond with disciplinary action, not just a warning, according to NETS, which also suggested implementing the strictest option: termination. Once the policy is finalized, send out an internal press release and a company-wide voicemail. Sample policies can be found at and
  5. Build staff buy-in. Having employees sign the policy is a good start, but it’s not enough. When introducing policy, use real stories of people who have been killed in distracted driving incidents. The website has videos and keeps track of distracted driving accidents and fatalities. Create and distribute a sheet explaining why the company has decided to implement the policy. Remind employees that signing the policy opens them up to liability as well; if they violate the policy, the company can take legal action against them.
  6. Enforce the policy. After education and buy-in, stick by your measurement protocols and incentive programs, and keep employees in the loop about results. Gather survey information about individual productivity, especially since the effects are likely to be positive. Other tactics include reminders in company vehicles, such as NSC’s “Pull Over and Park” poster, and pocket cards for each employee with a summary of the policy.

Driving it home: the great multitasking lie

While most, if not all of us, can agree that texting while driving is a dangerous behavior, the National Safety Council (NSC) believes many people don’t fully grasp that having cell phone conversations while driving is also risky.

Cognitive distractions last much longer than other distractions, such as visual ones. When you dial a cell phone, you may be visually distracted for a few seconds, but you are now cognitively distracted the entire length of the cell phone call, noted the NSC.

Here are four myths that the NSC wants to help dispel regarding the “great multitasking lie.”

MYTH 1: Drivers can multitask.

Reality: Contrary to popular belief, the human brain cannot multitask. Driving and talking on a cell phone are two thinking tasks that involve many areas of the brain. Instead of processing both simultaneously, the brain rapidly switches between two cognitive activities.

MYTH 2: Talking to someone on a cell phone is no different than talking to someone in the vehicle.

Reality: A study cited by the University of Utah found that drivers distracted by cell phones are more oblivious to changing traffic conditions because they are the only ones in the conversation who are aware of the road.

In contrast, drivers with adult passengers in their vehicles have an extra set of eyes and ears to help keep the drivers aware of oncoming traffic problems. Adult passengers tend to adjust their talking when traffic is challenging. People on the other end of a driver’s cell phone cannot do that.

MYTH 3: Hands-free devices eliminate the danger of cell-phone use during driving.

Reality: Whether handheld or hands-free, cell phone conversations while driving are risky because the distraction to the brain remains. Activity in the parietal lobe, the area of the brain that processes movement of visual images and is important for safe driving, decreases by as much as 37% when listening to language, according to a study by Carnegie Mellon University.

Drivers talking on cell phones can miss seeing up to 50% of their driving environments, including pedestrians and red lights. They look but they don’t see. This phenomenon is also known as “inattention blindness.”

MYTH 4: Drivers talking on cell phone still have a quicker reaction time than those who are driving under the influence.

Reality: A controlled driving simulator study conducted by the University of Utah found that drivers using cell phones had slower reaction times than drivers with an 0.08 blood alcohol content, the legal intoxication limit.

Drivers talking on cell phones can immediately eliminate their risk by hanging up the phone, while drunk drivers remain at risk until they sober up.

Joanne Tucker is custom media manager at Bobit Business Media, MTD’s parent company, in Torrance, Calif. Lauren Fletcher is managing editor of MTD sister publications Work Truck and Automotive Fleet.

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