Ban Cell Phones While Driving?
Recently a car-accident third-party case triggered by a corporate-provided cell phone used by a salesman led one PMA member in that state to adopt a policy banning the use of company cell phones by employees while driving.
More recently, a law firm in Virginia has been sued for a $30 million claim where an associate attorney was engaged in a cell-phone discussion while driving her Mercedes home following a meeting at 10:30 p.m. She swerved off the road and fatally injured a 15-year-old girl walking near the guardrail. She pled guilty to a felony hit-and-run charge and is serving a one-year sentence at a work-release program. She claimed she thought she hit a deer.
These cases could have potentially significant implications for employers, large and small, who provide employees with corporate cell phones.
Given the current opinion climate against drivers who drive erratically while engrossed in cell-phone calls, and given recent scientific studies that demonstrate driver inattentiveness while attempting to do two things at the same time, significant verdicts in cell-phone auto accidents seem predictable.
New York recently became the first state to ban drivers from using cell phones. A majority of states are considering similar restrictions. One insurance poll found that 91 percent of Americans believe using cell phones while driving increases the chance of an accident. Nearly 69 percent favor banning cell-phone use during motor-vehicle operation.
Should employers with employees on the road handling company tasks adopt a safe cell-phone-use policy? Prudence says yes, even though there is a risk of a policy being viewed as an admitted recognition by an employer of the hazard.
The better argument for a policy is that such a policy demonstrates that the company took affirmative steps to prevent safety problems instead of ignoring them. Juries frequently support employer efforts of dealing with risks in a positive, practical manner.
A policy consistent with New York’s ban on hand-held cell phones while allowing the use of hands-free headsets for drivers who insist on using the cell phone on the road would appear supportable.
On the other hand, a safer policy would be to ban cell phones while workday driving. A 1997 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that drivers talking on any kind of cell phone reportedly run the risk of accidents to a quadruple multiplier.
At least, the time is ripe for corporate internal dialogue on this new type of policy.