Small Business: Distracted driving risks safety, liability

Josh Meyerowitz, president of SupplyHouse.com in Farmingdale, poses Josh Meyerowitz, president of SupplyHouse.com in Farmingdale, poses on May 21, 2014 for a portrait wearing a distracted driving awareness T-shirt. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

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Jamie Herzlich Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday. ...

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Every time an employee uses a cellphone while driving, he poses a potential risk to both himself and his employer.

Not only can distracted driving lead to injury or death, it can also result in physical damage to company vehicles, productivity losses if employee injury occurs and potential litigation if another person is involved. Cellphone use is the number one distraction.

Educating employees on the risks of distracted driving and creating policies around the use of mobile devices on the road is the best way to keep workers safe and reduce liability, experts say. And companies should make sure work demands don't encourage employees to take calls or answer texts behind the wheel.

"Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of job-related deaths," says Deb Trombley, senior program manager of transportation initiatives for the Itasca, Illinois-based National Safety Council.

Talking on a cellphone -- whether handheld or hands-free -- while driving makes you four times as likely to crash, and texting while driving increases your chance of a crash by as much as 23 times, according to NSC's website.

AWARENESS CAMPAIGN

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That's why president Josh Meyerowitz instituted a distracted driving awareness campaign this spring at SupplyHouse.com in Farmingdale, an e-commerce company that sells plumbing, heating and HVAC supplies online.

"It's something I'm passionate about," Meyerowitz says. "I'm personally guilty of texting while driving, and I realize the risks associated with it."

In April -- Distracted Driving Awareness Month -- all 80 SupplyHouse employees, whether they drive as part of their jobs or not, signed a monthlong pledge to stop texting and browsing on the road.

Each day employees noted their progress on a chart, says Kari Ann Stirnweis, who oversees human resources and took the pledge herself.

The company also created a public service announcement and T-shirts, and had a representative from EndDD.org (End Distracted Driving) speak to employees.

"It definitely stuck with people and heightened their awareness of the dangers," says Stirnweis, noting she's substantially reduced her own cellphone usage while driving as a result of the campaign. She uses Bluetooth to talk, hands-free, in her car.

"It continues to be a challenge," she says, "but we are ultimately committed to stopping completely."

Meyerowitz says he may consider a company policy down the line regarding use of mobile devices.

The NSC says every company should have a cellphone policy, recommending one that prohibits use of both hands-free and handheld devices and applies to all employees. Go to bit.ly/1kbrs4P for a downloadable kit on creating a policy.

Even with a hands-free device, conversation itself is distracting, Trombley says. If employees must take calls, instruct them to pull off the road to a safe spot.

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Matthew Sher, president of Day & Nite/All Service, a New Hyde Park HVAC, refrigeration, kitchen services and plumbing contractor, encourages its technicians to do just that. At any given time, the company can have 75 service vehicles on the road in the metro area.

Day & Nite holds defensive driving classes for employees and regularly checks workers' licenses to make sure they're in good standing, Sher says. "We take proactive measures," he notes, adding the company also provides drivers with headsets.

PROMOTING SAFETY

It's important for management to promote a culture of safety companywide, says Daniel Brown, a Minnesota-based risk control technical manager for Travelers, a large insurer. They should have a formal policy that's communicated widely and repeatedly, he says.

It should define the safe driving practices and behaviors expected of those who drive for any business purpose, he adds. And managers should set an example by following the policy themselves.

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They should also be mindful of driver safety when contacting employees, Trombley says. "Companies have to organize their dispatch practices around not calling the driver or creating a need where the driver feels like they have to call in."

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