Reduce Your Liability and Encourage Safe Driving

Hand-held cellphone banWith the U.S. Department of Transportations’ ban on hand-held cellphone use by drivers of commercial vehicles taking effect in January, it’s important to review your driver rules and make any needed adjustments to reduce your liability.

Employers who allow their drivers to use hand-held cellphones can face penalties up to $11,000. Updating your employee handbook to include that a driver may not use a hand-held device will help you defend against a lawsuit. Encourage your drivers to pull over if they need to make a call or send a text.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 5,474 people died and almost half a million were injured during crashes with a distracted driver in 2009. They define distracted driving by someone who is “texting, using a cellphone or smartphone, eating or drinking, talking to passengers, grooming, reading (including maps), using a navigation system, watching a video, or adjusting a radio, CD player, or MP3 player.” However, texting seems to be the most distracting for a driver.

Some states hold a business owner liable any time an employee is driving a company-owned vehicle whether or not it was in the scope of their employment. Meaning that if your employee is supposed to go to a job site, but decides that he or she needs to run an errand, you are still liable if that employee has a wreck.

Over the years, if a business owner was found to have previous knowledge that an employee was unlicensed, incompetent, or had a history of reckless or drunk driving, and still allowed that employee to drive a company vehicle, then the business owner can be held liable.

If an employee has a wreck while operating a company vehicle, the employee’s cellphone habits could come into question. Investigators will certainly be interested in whether there was a cellphone in use at the time of the accident. They will look for clues at the scene of the collision. They may also investigate the driver’s cellphone records and even his history and habits to try and determine if phone use contributed to the collision. The more evidence there is that indicates that cellphone use was common for a particular driver, the more likely it will be for law enforcement or a jury to make the assumption that the company was aware of the cellphone use, did not take effective measures to stop it, and therefore contributed to the circumstances which resulted in the collision.

For your protection, it would be best to not allow those drivers to drive company vehicles or run errands on behalf of the company. Depending on the scope of their job, you may find those with undesirable records may need to be replaced by someone with a better driving record. Even if an employee is driving their own vehicle, but conducting business on behalf of the company, a business owner can still be held liable.

If your company uses smartphones for communication, you may consider a mounted device for your trucks as well as blue-tooth devices that will allow your drivers to talk hands-free if this is still an option in your state or city. Some municipalities have implemented radios for drivers who need to communicate with each other to reduce the temptation to check email, text, or other things.

However, there have been studies that have shown that hands-free cellphone use is not substantially safer than hand-held use (study conducted by VTTI). The University of Utah also concluded through their study that “using a cellphone while driving hand-held or hand-free delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08.”

Another way to help your driver avoid an accident is by making sure that your vehicles are properly maintained. A tire blowout or some other mishap could result in loss of control of the vehicle. Since the maintenance of a company vehicle is the responsibility of the business owner, failure to perform that maintenance and the negative consequences that arise from that failure is the owner’s responsibility.
You may also want to review insurance coverage for the company and the individual drivers to ensure that you have sufficient coverage in case of an accident.

Right now, special keys exist to prevent cellphone use and texting while driving. These were invented and marketed to parents to keep their teenage drivers in check, but can be used in business vehicles and commercial fleet vehicles to redirect calls and messaging and block outbound use.

The good news is that this ban, if followed, will reduce the likelihood that your drivers will be involved in an accident thereby reducing exposure to civil liability from someone getting injured or property being destroyed. It will also reduce the chances of damage to your trucks, and reduce traffic law violations which could result from driver inattention because they are paying attention to their phone instead of the speed limit, traffic lights, or traffic signs.

Story by Jennifer Taylor

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