Cell Phones and Other Driver Distractions

Businessman looking at smartphone while driving
Image courtesy of [PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou] / Getty Images.

Distracted driving is a contributing factor in many auto accidents. In 2014, about 18% of injury crashes and 10% of fatal crashes involved distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Distracted driving was also a major factor in 3,179 traffic deaths and an additional 431,000 auto accidents. 

The NHTSA has identified three main types of driver distractions:

  • Visual Tasks, such as checking a GPS monitor, which cause a driver to take his or her eyes off the road.
  • Manual Tasks (like reaching for a cell phone) that cause a driver to remove one or both hands from the steering wheel.
  • Cognitive Tasks that cause a driver to think about something other than driving.

Sources of Distraction

Vehicle operators often engage in secondary activities while driving. Some examples are listed below. Because these activities draw the driver's attention away from driving, they increase the odds that an auto accident or a near accident will occur.

  • Texting
  • Making or receiving calls on a cell phone
  • Focusing on something outside the vehicle ("rubber-necking")
  • Eating or drinking
  • Grooming
  • Talking to a passenger
  • Using a navigation system
  • Reading
  • Adjusting a radio, CD player or a similar device

Multiple Distractions

Many drivers are affected by more than one distraction. In the following scenario, the driver is distracted by a combination of visual, manual and cognitive tasks.

Nick is a technician for Nifty Nerds, a computer services company.

It's 9 A.M. on a Tuesday, and Nick is loading gear into a company-owned truck. He is fuming over an argument he just had with his boss. A client phoned early this morning, and complained that software Nick installed last week is not working. Nick's boss began yelling the moment Nick set foot in the office.

He demanded that Nick resolve the client's software issue immediately.

With his coffee mug in one hand, Nick starts up the truck and maneuvers it into a line of traffic. He approaches an intersection, but can't remember which way he's supposed to turn. He is checking the GPS monitor in the truck when his cell phone rings. It's probably his boss calling. He sets his mug in a cup holder, and reaches across the passenger seat for his phone.

Suddenly he hears the sound of tires squealing. Then there's a loud crash as he rear-ends the vehicle in front of him. Nick is grateful that no one has been injured. Yet, he is later dismayed when the police report cites his distracted driving as the cause of the crash.

Cell Phones

Surveys conducted by the NHTSA indicate that many drivers use their cell phones while driving, even though they are aware of the dangers. Texting is particularly dangerous because it constitutes a three-level distraction (visual, manual and cognitive). Most states have enacted laws that prohibit texting while driving. Still, many drivers continue this practice, particularly teenagers and young adults.

A number of states prohibit the use of hand-held phones while driving. But are hands-free devices really safer than the hand-held variety?

The answer may be no, according to the NHTSA. Whether hand-held or hands-free, cell phones are distracting. They can prevent a driver from reacting quickly enough to avoid an accident.

Some studies have suggested that using a cell phone while driving is no riskier than having a conversation with a passenger. Other studies have reached the opposite conclusion. In any case, the two activities are not identical. A passenger is present in the vehicle, so he or she is aware of ongoing risks (such as weather and traffic). These risks are unknown to the person at the other end of a cell phone call.

Employer Liability

Employers can be held vicariously liable if their employees drive negligently on the job, and trigger auto accidents that cause injuries to others.

If your workers must drive company autos to perform their job duties, you and your workers should be insured for auto liability under a commercial auto policy.

If your workers drive their own vehicles on behalf of your business, you'll need to purchase non-owned auto liability coverage. The latter protects your firm against claims arising out of accidents involving vehicles you don't own. Non-owned auto liability coverage does not extend to your employees. Nevertheless, you can insure employees who drive their personal autos on company business via an endorsement called Employees as Insureds.

Cell Phone Policy

As an employer, you are obligated to safeguard your employees from injuries they might sustain on the job. You can help protect them against auto accidents by developing a written policy on the use of cell phones while driving. The safest approach is to prohibit employees from using cell phones when they drive.

For help drafting a cell phone policy, contact your insurance agent or auto insurer. Another good resource is the National Safety Council, which offers a free Cell Phone Policy Kit. The kit is available at the NSC's website.

Once you have put your cell phone policy into practice, you will need to enforce it. You can use fleet telematics to monitor employees' use of cell phones while driving. An alternative is an app that shuts off cell phones when vehicles are in motion.