By now most of us have read and seen media reports regarding the troubling crash statistics related to distracted driving influenced by smartphone use. What is it about this simple activity that causes a driver’s performance capabilities to diminish? For safety professionals, it’s important to understand the physiology of how taking calls and texting dramatically reduces the amount of information drivers can process to safely operate a vehicle.
Studies from major universities have concluded that when you take a call—and this includes hands-free use— a phenomenon known as “inattention blindness” occurs. Simply stated, this is a person’s inability to perceive things which are in plain sight because the brain has prioritized and assigned its processing capacity elsewhere. So as your mind automatically switches priorities from safely operating a vehicle to some other secondary activity, like getting engrossed in a conversation, critical details of your surroundings needed while driving start disappearing from your mind’s eye. Maybe it’s a child running into the street after a ball, a car stopped in traffic to pick up a passenger, or a traffic light turning red.
Every time a person drives and engages in a cell phone conversation, the driver and everyone else sharing the road with this person are at risk. The latest crash statistics as reported by the National Safety Council now show that distractions are a contributing factor in one out of every four crashes.
The temptation to use a phone while driving is always present. For many drivers, it almost seems to be an addictive response to answer a ringing phone. But the decision and the responsibility to stay safe is up to each of us. Reflect on what you’ve been doing during your own time spent driving. If you allowed your mind’s eye to focus on non-essential driving activities, make no mistake about it —you are at risk.
And for employers, the potential adverse consequences have come to include risking the reputation and financial health of the organization. Changing attitudes by courts and jurors regarding distracted driving has become a major factor in the growing number of high-dollar awards being handed down. Recent cases are demonstrating that there is little tolerance when business drivers are involved in crashes with other drivers while engaged on their phones. Awards are becoming punitive (one $21 million verdict against Coca-Cola Company in 2012 is a poignant example). Punitive damages can be devastating for a business as this exposure is generally excluded from insurance coverage. When awarded, punitive damages can be up to three times the underlying award amount. Many businesses never recover from this uninsurable loss and are forced to close their doors.
Aware of the real-life dangers as well as the changing legal climate resulting from distracted driving, many employers have written or amended safety policies to prohibit the use of phones while driving on company time. A number of states have also passed laws mandating similar requirements. Properly monitored and enforced, this requirement can lower drivers’ exposure to avoidable incidents and protect others with whom they share the road. A smart distraction-avoidance policy and a collaborative approach throughout the organization, will help assure your drivers are not blinded by distractions by keeping their mind’s eye focused on the road ahead.
What is your employer’s tolerance level regarding use of cell phones and other electronic devices while driving for company business? What about hands-free devices? Many safety policies are still either silent about their use or actually approve using hands-free devices. At a minimum, your employer’s tolerance level regarding use of cell phones better match up with judicial tolerance levels. If your policy has not been updated in a while, it’s probably a good idea to conduct a review and determine if what’s currently in place adequately protects your drivers and organization.
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