The distracted driving battle moves to the boardroom

We all know that distracted driving is bad. A growing number of companies know it, too, and they're taking steps to ensure that their employees keep cell phones turned off when they're behind the wheel.

By , Guest blogger

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    Shell Oil was one of the first companies to ban talking while driving, after noticing an uptick in fatalities among its employees and contractors during the late 1990s. Here, a line of 18-wheelers sit at a truck stop off the Massachusetts Turnpike I-90 in a June 1999 file photo.
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We all know that distracted driving is bad. A growing number of companies know it, too, and they're taking steps to ensure that their employees keep cell phones turned off when they're behind the wheel.

Why do those companies do it? How do they do it? And perhaps most importantly: is your company next? 

Backstory

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According to an article in the New York Times, oil companies were among the first in the world to begin restricting their employees' use of cell phones. That only makes sense, since oil companies are huge, multinational outfits that employ a large number of drivers. Those drivers often handle very big rigs loaded with some very dangerous content, so the risks involved in crashing are huge.

Shell Oil began noticing an uptick in fatalities among its employees and contractors during the late 1990s. By 2002, the company had instituted a ban on hand-held cell phone usage, and by 2005, that ban had been extended to include hands-free devices like Bluetooth earpieces.

The result? A 57% reduction in crashes (though that figure is also due to other safety initiatives employed by Shell, like speed-reduction training).

Companies in other industries are taking notice. In fact, a nonprofit called the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety has sprung up to help some of America's biggest corporations -- from Coca-Cola to Monsanto to UPS -- improve the safety of their fleets.

Of course, these companies aren't just doing this for altruistic reasons: it benefits their bottom line, too. Fewer accidents mean greater productivity and fewer costly lawsuits.

There are, however, some holdouts -- notably, the Consumer Electronics Association. Its members are comfortable with policies that prohibit texting and driving, but they're wary to go much further.

CEA is particularly nervous about company policies and laws looming in state legislatures that prohibit the use of all devices, both hand-held and hands-free. The organization claims that there's no data to show that hands-free calls are dangerous -- despite the fact that the National Transportation Safety Board has come out in favor of full bans, and despite numerous studies (including several we've cited here) showing that all calls are distracting, whether or not drivers hold phones to their ears.

Best practices

Companies who institute effective bans on cell phone usage do more than just tell employees, "Don't use your phones on the road". They create a company-wide environment that supports such safety measures. For example:

  • They use software like PhoneGuard and DriveSafe.ly to help employees minimize cell phone use on the road. This software usually takes the form of a smartphone app that kicks in when a vehicle is in motion, routing calls to voicemail and autoresponding to text messages.
  • They institute policies for folks at company HQ, minimizing their contact with drivers and others in the field. For example, they avoid scheduling teleconferences during those parts of the day that are key for travel, and in board rooms, they post notices asking teleconference organizers to ask those on the road if they're parked in a safe location.
  • They institute penalties for disobeying the rules, including dismissal. After all, a policy won't do much good if it has no teeth.
  • While business calls are almost always forbidden by these policies, some companies appear more flexible when it comes to personal calls. They understand that a sick relative or an impending birth can mean that employees occasionally need to take calls on the go.

Does your company ban cell phone use for drivers? If so, does it do anything else to ensure employee compliance? And if not, have there been rumblings about instituting such a policy?

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best auto bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.

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