Mayhem, Cell Phones, and Keeping People Safe on the Road

Last Tuesday the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a proposal for banning the use of cell phones while driving. Specifically, they recommended the ban on “non-emergency use of personal electronic devices (PEDs)”, which would include cell phones (but not GPS devices). While many states have bans covering phones the board’s recommendation goes further. For example, it doesn’t exclude hands-free devices, something which no state currently bans the use of.

“It’s not unlike smoking. We have to get to a place where it’s not in vogue anymore, where people recognize it’s harmful and there’s a risk and it’s not worth it.”

Statistics seem to support the recommendation. According to a 2010 study it’s believed that 28% of car accidents are caused by drivers using cell phones, whether by texting or making calls. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of major accidents that have been linked to this issue. And it must resonate enough that insurance companies make commercials exploiting this issue.

As a business leader I’ve dealt with this. In the retail industry many roles require a fair amount of travel; for example, to conduct store visits. Based on their locations a manager could spend a lot of time driving and to remain productive might take and receive calls. I knew one District Manager who consistently dialed into a Monday morning conference call while on the road to the office. They used a hands-free device each time. On one occasion they didn’t and we insisted that they stop on the side of the road to continue the call.

From a policy and procedure standpoint I’ve crafted language around cell phone use while driving. It was challenging because there’s no uniform policy across the US. So I created one that was broad enough to apply in any market the company operated in at that time. No texting (partly for safety reasons and partly for cost) under any circumstances while driving. They must use a hands-free device. From a cultural standpoint we made adjustments as well. We tried to schedule meetings when people were less likely to be driving. All company issued cell phones had hands-free attachments included. We wanted employees to be safe and focused on the more important  task, which was to get to where they were going in one piece.

It’s interesting to note that many people oppose a total ban. The rationale is that, while people will admit that texting or talking on a phone is distracting, it’s only distracting for others and not themselves. They also see it as an infringement of their rights; that this isn’t a serious enough issue to warrant government intervention.

For those that argue this point they should consider a woman named Candice Lightner. In May of 1980 her 13 year old daughter, Cari Lightner, was killed by a drunk driver. This wasn’t the first time her family was affected by the actions of an irresponsible driver. But the death of her daughter prompted her to do more than grieve. It led to the creation of MADD-Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Through the group’s efforts legislation was enacted raising the drinking age in the United States from 18 to 21. It also led to stiffer fines and penalties for people caught driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol. 

Cari Lightner’s death was the tipping point with regards to how Americans address the issue of drunk driving. I suspect something similar will happen when it comes to cell phones. To protect employees and the organization business leaders should do the following:

  • Be proactive. Do your homework when it comes to local and state laws on cell phone use while driving. Review the company’s policies on this subject  to see if they match, if not exceed, government regulations. If the company operates in multiple states then it might be better to have a blanket policy in place, one that meets the criteria of the most restrictive public policy in existence.
  • Be honest. Take a clear look at what employees are actually doing. If asked, many will say, “Oh yeah, I never text.” Is this true? Also be sensitive to the reasons why employees are on the phone while driving. How much time are they typically spending driving? Is it the only time they have to have certain conversations, either personal or professional? How much time are they spending on their own while driving? Getting to the truth will allow leaders to understand the dynamics behind employee behavior. This will lead to better… 
  • Training and communication strategies. As with any policy change, it’s important to communicate why it was made. Make it simple, straightforward, and give employees a chance to voice their opinions. Make sure everyone’s clear on their role and responsibility in complying with the policy. 

Like I said before, more restrictive legislation will come. Companies should get ahead of this issue, not just for safety reasons, but also to avoid the potential for litigation and negative publicity. All it takes is one high profile tragedy, then the choice is out of the organization’s hands.

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