For years, Oprah Winfrey has asked guests to sign a pledge promising not to text while driving. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has taken up the calling. OSHA has dedicated an entire portion of its website to Distracted Driving and is encouraging employers to help solve the problem of texting while driving. According to OSHA:
- More workers are killed every year in motor vehicle crashes than any other cause
- Distracted driving crashes killed more than 5,400 people in 2009
- Texting while driving claimed more than 16,000 lives from 2001 to 2007
- Reaction time is delayed for a driver talking on a cell phone as much as it is for a driver who is legally drunk
- Drivers who are texting take their eyes off the road 400% more than when they are not texting
OSHA is using the “general duty clause” of the Occupational Safety and Health Act to compel employers to safeguard drivers at work. The general duty clause, 29 USC §654(a), requires an employer to furnish each of its employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to its employees. OSHA is committed to issuing citations and penalties to employers that require texting while driving or that organize work duties so that texting while driving is a practical necessity.
All employers should adopt policies that prohibit employees from using hand held cell phones and from texting and emailing while operating a motor vehicle. The policy should apply whether or not the employee is using a company vehicle and whether or not the employee is using a company issued or subsidized cell phone or smart phone. If an employee needs to make or receive a telephone call, the employee should be required to use a hands-free device, or preferably, should be required to pull over to a safe place to use the cell phone. For employees who must submit data to their employers while travelling, the reporting system should be designed so that the employee may transmit the data or information while not operating a vehicle. Employers may also wish to consider purchasing applications that disable cell phones when travelling over a specified speed limit.
Apart from OSHA’s mandate, employers should also be mindful of common law tort liability for accidents caused by employees distracted by their cell phones. Even if the employee is not driving in the course and scope of his or her duties, if the distracting telephone conversation, text message, or email relates to company business, an enterprising victim will undoubtedly seek to hold the employer liable. Lastly, many states have passed laws limiting the use of cell phone while driving. Here is a link to a website summarizing laws restricting cell phone and texting use: www.iihs.org/laws/cellphonelaws.aspx.