Driving To Distraction

High-priced lawsuits naming cell phones as the primary contributor are now common.

108a_drivewithcellphoneNo gases and welding distributor would allow employees to operate a vehicle under the influence of alcohol on company time. Why, then, don’t most companies address an issue that is just as dangerous?

Studies conducted by the University of Utah show that motorists talking on cell phones are five times more likely to cause an accident than those who do not talk on cell phones while driving. A related study found that the risk of driving while using a phone or personal digital assistant (PDA) is as hazardous as driving with a 0.08 blood alcohol level, the legal limit of intoxication in most states.

Why Should Distributors Care?
Gases and welding supply delivery typically includes frequent stops and high usage of city roads, which hold a greater susceptibility to accidents and degree of difficulty (as opposed to interstate driving). Heavy trucks also have the tendency to cause more damage to other vehicles, increasing auto liability claims. The fact that trucks are often used as “rolling billboards” with corporate logos and names proudly displayed makes welding supply distributors an easy target after an accident, representing deep pockets.

Under the legal doctrine of “respondeat superior” (Latin for “let the master answer”), movers can be brought into lawsuits due to acts committed by their employees. This doctrine states that the employer is liable if the employee is acting within the scope of their employment.

In the gases and welding industry, many core business functions use a vehicle; whether it’s a delivery driver, sales representative or executive, they all combine to create an additional exposure for the company.

In recent years, heightened litigation naming cell phone use as the cause of automobile accidents has cost companies millions of dollars. Some examples are below:

Berry Electric of Arlington Heights, Illinois, was hit with a $4 million lawsuit after one of its employees ran a stoplight and struck the vehicle of a 70-year-old woman, injuring her. The employee was lost and was using the navigation device on his BlackBerry.

Cooley Godward, a Virginia-based law firm, suffered a $30 million wrongful death suit after an employee struck and killed a 15-year-old boy with her car while conducting business on her cell phone.

Dykes Industries of Little Rock, Arkansas, lost a $21 million case because an employee was using his cell phone to call into the office when he struck and injured a woman.

Sample Cell Phone Use Policy

It is well supported by accident statistics that using a cellular phone, either a handheld or a hands-free model, while operating a motor vehicle distracts a driver’s attention from traffic conditions. To help reduce the possibility of vehicle accidents in connection with the use of cellular phones, our company has adopted a cellular phone policy that is applicable to all employees while driving a company vehicle at any time, or while driving any other vehicle (rented, leased, borrowed or owned) while conducting company business.

Our company’s policy is as follows:
  • Cellular phone calls, incoming or outgoing, are prohibited while driving.
  • The cellular phone’s voicemail feature should be on to store incoming calls while driving.
  • All non-emergency calls should be made after the vehicle is safely parked.
  • Accidents incurred while the employee driver is using a cellular phone may be considered to be preventable, and the employee driver is subject to disciplinary action.
  • Hands-free cellular phones are subject to the same policy as the handheld cellular phones.

I have read the above policy and will abide by it.


(Employee Signature) (Date)

Driving Distractions Have Been Around Forever, So Why Worry Now?
Changing the radio station, looking up an address and communicating back to the office have all distracted drivers in the past, but become difficult to prove in court. Following an auto accident, it is now common practice to subpoena cell phone records, since talking while driving is an easily traceable act.

The increased popularity of cell phones and PDAs raises the need to educate drivers. Devices are becoming multifunctional, causing longer periods of distraction, as many phones are more interactive than in the past. Drivers are able to talk, send e-mail, surf the Internet and download files while operating motor vehicles.

Laws in several major cities ban the use of handheld devices, but permit hands-free cell phones. Studies from the University of Utah, University of Toronto and the Harvard School of Public Health indicate that hands-free devices do not appear to be any safer for drivers. Rather than limited dexterity, the main factor in cell phone-related auto accidents is limited driver attention. One study found that driver attention decreased by 37 percent when drivers were using hands-free devices while behind the wheel.

What Can Your Company Do for Protection?
Good Idea – Purchase higher limits of insurance. However, there are alternative and better risk management techniques that are not as costly.

Better Idea – Require a written vehicle use policy restricting cell phone usage.

Best Idea – Enforce a vehicle use policy prohibiting cell phone usage while driving and provide training on proper use.

Cell phone usage while driving is a dangerous exposure facing every GAWDA member and is an issue that cannot be overlooked. The effect that a cell phone-related accident could have on your gases and welding company might cost money, a key employee or even the survival of the firm.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
108b_hopkinstony Meet the Author
Tony Hopkins is a sales executive at The Horton Group, based in Waukesha, Illinois, and on the Web at www.thehortongroup.com.