Distracted Driving

August 27, 2019

Driving safely requires the driver’s full and undivided attention. Activities that divert attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in the vehicle, and fiddling with the radio and entertainment or navigation system impairs the driver’s ability to observe dynamic traffic and road conditions and react to potential hazards. Distracted driving may not directly cause a motor vehicle accident, but it can slow reaction time and cause drivers to miss important visual cues – greatly diminishing a driver’s ability to avoid or prevent a crash.

In 2018, 4,637 Americans were killed and an estimated 390,000 were injured in vehicle crashes involving a confirmed distracted driver. Countless other accidents and injuries may be attributed to incidents where driver distraction was not reported.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), three types of distracted driving exist:

  1. Manual Distraction – When a driver takes their hands off the wheel to adjust the radio, reach for an item, or pet their dog
  2. Visual Distraction – When a driver takes their eyes off the road to look at an accident or roadside attraction, glance at a text message, or look at their kids in the back seat
  3. Cognitive Distraction – When a driver takes their mind off the act of driving in conversation, to daydream, to think about a problem at work, or to consider their grocery list (Cognitive distraction may impair the driver to such an extent that driving becomes a secondary task.)

The NHTSA investigation concludes that texting or e-mailing while driving is the most dangerous type of distracted driving. Texting and e-mailing on a mobile device combines all three types of driver distraction at once. Data published by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in 2018 shows that a single text distracts the driver for five seconds, on average. During this time a car at 50 mph will travel the length of a football field.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study also showed the following:

  • Texting (or similar phone activity) doubles your chances of involvement in an accident of any type
  • Texting triples your chance of involvement in a road-departure crash (driving off the road and hitting a tree, sign, or other object)
  • Texting increases your chances of rear-ending another vehicle by more than 700%

Texting, e-mailing, or similar phone activity is not the only source of distraction for a driver. Talking on a cell phone – regardless how the phone is being held – is a cognitive distraction. Depending on the extent to which the driver becomes engaged within the conversation, it can shift the driver’s attention and delay the recognition and processing of information needed to safely accomplish the driving task.

Employees who use their cell phones while driving subject themselves and others to a significant safety risk. An NHTSA survey found that drivers cite work-related communications as a primary reason to use phones while driving. Employers who expect (or permit) employees to use phones for work-related communications while driving must recognize their involvement and connection to increased crash risk for their employees and the financial and safety risks created by the use of these devices while driving. Very few employers (if any) would deliberately and knowingly expose their employees to increased risk of injury within their workplace; however, employers routinely endanger employees by permitting and encouraging smart phone use while driving.

A growing body of evidence suggests that using hands-free phone devices may be equally as dangerous as talking normally on a cell phone. A recent National Safety Council study found that “the cognitive distraction from paying attention to conversation – from listening and responding to a disembodied voice – contributes to numerous driving impairments” including inattention blindness (when drivers look at, but do not see objects in their path), slower reaction times, and difficulty staying in a lane.

Employers can generally be held responsible for damages when a distracted driver is acting in the course and scope of employment. When a distracted driver is involved in a crash with injuries to passengers or drivers and passengers of other vehicles and it can be determined that the driver was working or driving a company-owned vehicle, the injured parties will very likely involve the driver’s employer in litigation.

In distracted driving litigation, jurors have demonstrated a tendency to intensely empathize with the victims and a motivation to send a strong message to the business community against actions that they fear for themselves and their families. The employer’s active or passive role in encouraging and permitting distracted driving is generally detrimental to a favorable litigation outcome. Judgments, including punitive damages, in a distracted driver lawsuit could be financially devastating to small and mid-size employers. Jury awards could exceed insurance policy limits, and insurance does not cover punitive damages. Increased future premiums will also likely result.

As driving is a safety-critical task, employers who require or allow employees to conduct business in motor vehicles should establish policies and best practices to support driver attentiveness at all times, regardless of whether the business drivers are operating heavy over-the-road vehicles or occasional operate passenger cars. Employers should consider the following policies and performance expectations to limit and eliminate driver distraction:

  1. Implement and enforce a policy to prohibit any use of mobile devices when the vehicle is in motion. The policy should apply to handheld and hands-free devices, all employees, all company vehicles, all company cell phone devices, and all work-related communications – even in a personal vehicle or on a personal device. (One exception is the navigation system; however, destination information should only be entered when the vehicle is stationary.)
  2. Limit or eliminate devices that require driver/device interaction while driving.
  3. Establish a policy that requires drivers to safely stop out of traffic when responding to or initiating e-mail or responding to/initiating a phone call.
  4. Establish a management policy requiring managers to actively promote and encourage subordinates to avoid initiating or responding to cell phone calls to co-workers, supervisors, and customers.
  5. Implement mandatory integration of Do Not Disturb modes or other smartphone apps to disable text or call features while driving.
  6. Require/provide hands-free cell phone interfaces – with awareness that hands-free devices do not mitigate driver distraction.

Employers should instruct drivers on the life-changing hazards of distracted driving, help them recognize distractions, and provide practical tips (from AAA) to avoid distracted driving. Examples of these tips are as follows:

  1. Fully focus on driving as your primary task.  Do not let anything divert your attention. Actively scan the road, use your mirrors, and watch out for pedestrians and cyclists.
  2. Secure and store loose gear, possessions, and other distractions that could roll around in the car, so you do not feel tempted to reach for them on the floor or the seat.
  3. Make all adjustments before you get underway. Address vehicle systems like navigation, seat adjustment, mirror adjustment, climate controls, and sound systems before putting the vehicle in DRIVE.  Decide on your route and check traffic conditions ahead of time.
  4. Finish dressing and personal grooming at home – before you get on the road.
  5. Eat meals or snacks before and after your trip – not while driving.  On the road, avoid messy foods that can be difficult to manage.
  6. Secure children and/or pets before getting underway.  If they need your attention, pull off the road safely to attend to them.  Reaching into the backseat can cause you to lose control of your vehicle.
  7. Put away your electronic distractions.  Do not use cell phones while driving – handheld or hands-free – except in absolute emergencies.  Never use text messaging, e-mail functions, video games, or the internet with a mobile device, including those built into the vehicle, while driving.
  8. If you have passengers, enlist their help so you can focus safely on driving.
  9. If another activity demands your attention, instead of trying to attempt it while driving, pull off the road and stop your vehicle in a safe place.  To avoid temptation, power down or disable devices before heading out.
  10. If you cannot devote your full attention to driving because of some other activity, it is a distraction.  Take care of it before or after your trip, not while behind the wheel.

Distracted driving is a widespread issue for business and non-business drivers.  Employers are obligated to endorse and promote effective measures and safeguards to ensure that their employees are prepared and equipped to travel and return home safely.  A robust distracted driving/mobile device policy helps to assure safe travel for employees in the conduct of daily business.

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Jim Zoda, Senior Vice President, has more than 25 years of insurance industry experience. Jim specializes in manufactured home communities, manufacturing, healthcare, wholesale distribution, retail, and hospitality/food service industries – working with clients to identify cost-drivers associated with their casualty risk management programs and assisting in the development and implementation of strategic processes to help minimize costs.​ Jim can be contacted via email at jzoda@beechercarlson.com.


This article is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a guarantee of coverage and should not be used as a substitute for an individualized assessment of one’s need for insurance or alternative risk services, nor should it be relied upon as legal advice, which should only be rendered by a competent attorney familiar with the facts and circumstances of a particular matter. Copyright Beecher Carlson Insurance Services, LLC. All Rights Reserved.