A 71-year-old woman was awarded $4.1 million in December 2006 because a company driver ran a red light while he was looking down at his BlackBerry and crashed into her. The employee, driving a Berry Electric Contracting Co. vehicle, was lost and was using his BlackBerry’s navigation device to find his destination. The injured woman underwent five surgeries, including two on her neck, where she has lost a range of motion. Her broken pelvis was bolted together and she now has permanent vision problems. As a result of incidents such as this, along with a host of anecdotal stories, driver distraction from PDA devices is a growing issue with fleet managers.

A recent survey reveals that drivers also support bans against activities they consider distractions while driving. A survey by Response Insurance reported that 65 percent of Blackberry owners favor banning their use while driving. In fact, Blackberry owners supported the ban more than those who do not own one (58 percent). In another survey, an alarming 19 percent of the respondents reported they sent text messages while driving.

Proposal to Ban Texting While Driving
On January 16, a bill to ban text messaging while driving was introduced in the Arizona state legislature. House Bill 2129 seeks to prohibit texting while driving in Arizona, effective Jan. 31, 2008. Law enforcement, CDL drivers, public transit personnel, etc. would be exempt. However, the overwhelming majority of company drivers would be covered under the prohibition. Sending or receiving a text message while driving a vehicle would not be grounds to be pulled over by a police officer. However, if a driver is pulled over for another infraction or was in an accident (and found to have been texting), the driver could be cited. The fines are $50 if caught texting, $200 if doing so just prior to an accident. It would be illegal to read a text or send one while driving.

Multi-Tasking While Driving
More and more fleet managers rank driver safety as either their number-one or number-two challenge (after the high cost of fuel). One reason for heightened concern is that fleet managers are reporting an increase in preventable accidents, with the root cause driver distraction. A contributing factor to these preventable accidents is the increased workload of company drivers. Drivers are multi-tasking because they are required to do more in the same allotted time. Multi-tasking while driving has become common, and is a major factor in driver distraction. Although the cell phone continues to be the number-one source of driver distraction, text messaging is a growing factor. Drivers engaged in mobile texting spend about 400-percent more time taking their eyes off the road and are 70-percent less likely to stay in their lane, according to an Australian study. It is not uncommon to see drivers resting a Blackberry on the top of the steering wheel while using their thumbs to type a text message. A driver talking on a cell phone hopefully will be watching the road, but someone responding to a text message is staring at his or her hands.

Lawsuits against companies for distracted driving have an earlier precedent. In 2000, a San Francisco-based law firm employee, conducting business on her cell phone and driving a company car, hit and killed a 15-year-old girl. The girl’s family sued the law firm for $30 million. The suit stated the firm was partly liable for the accident because the employee’s job involved doing business by cell phone and the calls made had a direct benefit to the law firm. In October 2004, the law firm settled the suit for an undisclosed amount and the employee was ordered to pay damages in the amount of $2 million.

Fleet Policy Must Keep Up with the Times
Driver distraction causes or contributes to 25-30 percent of auto accidents. If you're traveling at 65 mph, and take your eyes off the road for as few as three seconds due to a distraction, it is the equivalent of driving the length of a football field. A driver who looks away from the road for two or more seconds is almost twice as likely as an attentive driver to be involved in a crash or near crash, according to a study by the Foundation for Traffic Safety and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

Your fleet policy must be a living document that changes with the current realities of your company, not frozen in the realities of yesteryear. Does your fleet policy address texting while driving? If not, it needs to be updated. By not specifically prohibiting texting while driving, you could be an accessory to a needless family tragedy and draconian consequences to your company.

Let me know what you think.


Originally posted on Automotive Fleet