A deadly California train collision has again shined a spotlight on the dangers of inappropriate use of handheld texting devices.
While the National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate what caused a September accident in which a Los Angeles Metrolink commuter train plowed head-on into a Union Pacific freight locomotive, preliminary reports indicate the Metrolink engineer may have been distracted by sending a text message in the seconds preceding the crash. The commuter train blew through a red “stop” signal just before smashing into the freight locomotive.
The collision killed 25 passengers and injured 135.
Three times the peril
The accident is a powerful reminder that employers must restrict texting (and talking on cell phones) while employees on duty drive vehicles or operate dangerous equipment.
The best way to do so: Make restrictions a matter of company policy.
People who send text messages while driving are three times more likely to crash than other drivers, and distracted driving accounts for 80% of all accidents, according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study.
“There’s a time and a place for texting, and behind the wheel is not one of them. Be responsible … don’t text and drive,” says a statement from CTIA, a trade association representing the wireless telecommunications industry.
Put it in writing
The message: It’s time to revise your communications policy. Even if you already have a policy that bans chatting on cell phones while driving on company business—or at least requires employees to use hands-free devices—you should prohibit texting or surfing the web while driving, too.
Employers that ignore this common-sense advice run two risks.
First, your employees are in danger of harming themselves and others if they are distracted by wireless devices. Simply put, banning their use is the right thing to do.
Second, a policy—properly implemented and enforced—offers employers some liability protection if an employee violates the rule anyway and causes an accident. (Metrolink has such a policy.) Employers that don’t regulate wireless use behind the wheel open themselves up to both vicarious liability for employees’ actions and possible charges of negligence.
Putting teeth in your policy requires three steps:
1. Prohibit the use of texting devices while driving. Spell it out in a written policy in your employee handbook.
Here’s a sample policy suggested in a Society for Human Resource report: “Employees are prohibited from texting or making use of electronic mail functions while the vehicle is in motion. This prohibition includes the time waiting for a traffic signal to change.”
2. Train your employees. Include instructions to either turn off their devices or prevent them from receiving messages until drivers pull over. The “airplane mode” on most cell phones and wireless devices will do the trick.
Make sure training covers applicable state and local laws affecting texting and driving.
Five states already specifically regulate text messaging while driving. A tough new texting-while-driving law takes effect Jan.1 in California. Twenty-nine states restrict in some way when and how drivers may use cell phones.
For a complete, state-by-state list of restrictions on cell phone and text message use while driving, see this table compiled by the Governors Highway Safety Association.
3. Enforce your policy. Having a policy but ignoring it can be worse than having no policy at all. Spell out disciplinary measures violators will suffer, and make sure employees understand the consequences of violating the policy.
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