Distracted Drivers Pose Serious Liability to Employers

The work can be dangerous, even deadly. Nail guns that misfire, malfunctioning power saws, scaffolding that collapses. But if you’re in the construction business, your biggest risk may be a distracted driver using their cellphone while behind the wheel of your company vehicle.

distracted drivers

CCIG’s Michael Kline.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,129 people were killed in distracted-driving crashes in the U.S. in 2014.

Under the doctrine of “vicarious responsibility,” employers may be held legally accountable for the negligent acts committed by employees while on the job.

Although only a few big cases have so far made it to court, juries have not been kind to employers.

In one high-profile case, a Texas jury in 2012 awarded $22 million to a woman injured when her car was hit by a Coca-Cola employee who was using a hands-free cellphone to make a business call.

A poor fleet safety record, of course, can mean higher insurance premiums. A number of insurers have, in fact, raised premiums in response to a spike in accident claims over the past couple years.

Here are four ways a construction company owner can address the issue.

1. Do better background checks. If you’re doing piecemeal background screenings on employees, you are likely to miss important details. Instead, consider using a third-party vendor to conduct comprehensive screenings that will help you weed out drivers with poor records.

2. Offer training. Sure, your crew knows how to hammer a nail but how good are everyone’s driving skills, really? This is often overlooked but, as OSHA notes, a driver safety program can greatly reduce the risks faced by your employees while protecting your company’s bottom line. Require all new drivers to receive classroom training, while veteran drivers should get annual training sessions, reviewing topics that include federal regulations and accident-avoidance techniques. Also, make sure you document any training you conduct, because that’ll be important in any potential crash investigation.

3. Get a policy in place. Many companies have established cellphone usage policies. Some allow employees to conduct business over the phone as long as they pull over to the side of the road or into a parking lot. Others have completely banned the use of all wireless devices. Whatever policy you pursue, put it in writing and require employees to sign it.

4. Get the app. Crash-avoidance technology is already helping to reduce crash risks related to distractions. But the technology is still in its early days, and it may be years before the majority of vehicles are equipped with it. In the meanwhile, phone applications that restrict or limit access to electronic devices are available. These apps work when vehicles are in motion and can silence the phone, redirect incoming calls to voicemail or respond to text messages with a preprogrammed message. A study examining phone use during work-related driving found that when phone use was restricted by a blocking application, employees answered fewer calls while the vehicle was moving and made more calls when the vehicle was stopped.

Michael Kline is a CCIG Assistant Vice President.