For years, Coca-Cola has barred employees from using cell phones while driving. But in May, a Texas jury awarded a woman $21.5 million in damages when her car was hit by a Coca-Cola employee driving a company car while using a phone with a hands-free headset. This was permitted under Coke’s cell-phone driving policy, as it is at many companies. The employee testified she would not have used the phone at all had company safety managers told her studies have shown even handless cell-phone use poses a greater risk of traffic accidents.
Coca-Cola concedes the employee was at fault but is contesting the amount of the award, noting that driving while using a cell phone is legal in Texas.
“Large judgments like this will eventually force companies to take a serious look at banning all cell-phone use,” says Richard Bleser, senior vice president and fleet specialty group leader at Marsh Risk Consulting. “That was a big hit for a company that was not being negligent,” he adds.
Two years ago, most companies with a lot of employees on the road were instituting or already had policies limiting or banning hand-held cell-phone use while driving. “Unfortunately, many of them listened to studies at the time that suggested hands-free phones were the way to go,” Bleser says. In fact, more recent studies show even hands-free cell phones significantly increase the chance of an accident, he says.
“The problem of distracted driving because of electronic devices has gotten worse in recent years,” says Mike McDonald, risk manager for Quality Distribution, a national trucking firm, citing the “explosion” in communication devices, from smartphones to GPS devices. His company bans all cell-phone use while driving, including taking calls from dispatchers, except for emergencies. The company also is “looking into” technologies that would block cell phones from working in a moving vehicle, McDonald says.
A recent survey of 570 fleet managers by Zoomsafer, a vendor of hands-free cell-phone equipment, shows employer concern about distracted driving has soared, with the portion of companies with cell-phone policies for drivers rising 31% in less than a year, to 81%. And in January, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration banned commercial drivers from using hand-held phones while driving.
Marsh’s Bleser says that regulation and company rules that allow hands-free cell-phone use will not end distracted driving accidents or big damage suits. “There is simply no room for multitasking when someone is driving,” he says.
Thomas Henry, lead plaintiff’s attorney in the Coke case, agrees. “There has to be a zero cell-phone use policy,” he says. “That’s the only real answer to this problem.”
For an earlier look at the risks involved in talking on the phone while driving a vehicle, see Distracted Driving Costs.
For a look at companies’ use of telematics systems to monitor employees’ behavior on the road, see Driving Monitor.