We’ve all seen and maybe we’ve even done it – multitask while driving. Forget the trusty travel tankard or high octane coffee in it’s little corrugated collar. I’ve seen people applying make-up, using an electric razor, and taking care of other personal hygiene while driving as if the windshield somehow makes them invisible to the rest of us.
Of course, one of the worst distractions on the road is the mobile phone with message texting and e-mail capabilities. North Carolina recently enacted a law making it illegal for drivers to use their mobile phones to type, retrieve, or read messages while driving. In the process, North Carolina joined 13 other states that have adopted similar bans. It’s a small but growing number of states moving toward stricter enforcement, and with good reason. Cell phone use while driving is fast becoming one of the top contributing causes to car accidents.
While it may be common sense not to drink and drive, or text and drive, or e-mail and drive; too many people still do it. If any of those people happen to be one of your employees and they’re driving distracted while on company business, your company can become liable for the injuries and damages they cause, regardless whether you operate in one of the 13 states that adopted a ban. The ban is just frosting on cake that creates an additional violation of law.
Take for example the case of the sales rep that ran a red light and slammed into another car, severely injuring the senior citizen behind the wheel. When the elderly lady sued, she sued the sales rep and the company he worked for because at the time of the accident he was on company business. It was a classic “he said/she said” standoff until someone took a look at the sales rep’s Blackberry. It showed he was sending a text message at the time of the vehicle’s impact. That means his eyes were off the road. He was negligent and that negligence contributed to the accident. The Blackberry was a smoking gun.
If the sales rep had hit a school bus filled with children, the legal exposure would have been even higher. Some of the largest insurance claims involve accidents with school buses simply because the damages multiply faster when the victims have a long life expectancy.
You never know what type of vehicle will get hit. That’s why one way to protect your business is with a strong company policy prohibiting distracted driving. Such a policy and corresponding training program helps employees understand why attentive driving is the right thing to do and it can go a long way towards protecting your company from legal liability if faced with a situation similar to the sales rep above.
Sure, you might still have a rogue employee who ignores it and multi-tasks behind the wheel while driving anyway. But by making it clear that such behavior is contrary to company policy and not condoned you arguably have a case for saying the employee was acting in their individual capacity and not as an agent of the company if they subsequently get into an accident. You give yourself a defense. It also gives you a basis for disciplining the employee for violating company policy while on company time and further distancing yourself from their unauthorized behavior. It’s better than nothing.
To be effective, however, such a policy must be balanced with reasonable expectations about staying in-touch electronically with the office and customers. If, for example, an employee is on the road a lot and expected to check their messages every fifteen minutes, you may be setting them up to fail under the policy if at the same time they’re required to keep a tight travel schedule. After all, to keep their itinerary requires them to keep moving, yet the constant checking-in will require extra stops that take time.
If the two requirements aren’t in synch you create an ethical dilemma for the employee. You’ll force them to decide which requirement is more important. You can avoid that conflict at the outset by balancing expectations regarding electronic accessibility 24/7 with your other competing business needs. Not only will help control the legal liability associated with distracted driving while on company business, it will make for a happier employee. They will know what you expect of them and that makes it easier to comply.