Distracted Driving — When Your Life & Livelihood Are on the Line …

“An admission: I had to face my driving demons. I’d convinced myself I was a `great’ driver, with plenty of road experience and superior ability to multitask. I was literally a poster child for deep driving denial. It took hard evidence gained through extensively testing Mentor by eDriving and meeting Paul Atchley,Ph.D. at an industry conference before I owned up to — and changed – my ways. I hope our joint perspective articulated in this co-authored piece and eDriving resources can do the same for you, your company and your family.” CELIA STOKES

More companies are doing the right thing and banning all cellphone use, other than preset GPS route guidance, behind the wheel for employees driving a company car or doing company business. That means no texting of any kind at any time (including at stoplights) and no calls of any kind including hands-free (that’s right, countless studies over many years prove there is virtually NO difference in distraction between hands-free and hand-held calls). Violate the ban, and you could get fired.

At the start of the year, tens of thousands of employees at agriculture and finance giant, Cargill, were ordered to go “cold turkey.” ExxonMobile and Johnson & Johnson have implemented similar bans. Overall, a survey of Fortune 500 companies by the National Safety Council a few years ago found 20 of 150 respondents had similar bans in place. And the trend is growing as the yearly increase in road fatalities and injuries surges.

As was the case with banning smoking in workplaces, this is an important step forward in what needs to be an all-out, across-the-board, comprehensive effort to cure the nation of a huge public health crisis.

Don’t think it’s a crisis? Rethink it. Translating the most recent available data on annual road fatalities into the equivalent number of airplane crashes, there would be 15 plane crashes of average size commercial planes a month in the US. Try wrapping your brain around that—imagine if 15 airplanes were crashing each month. Surely every corporation and household would notice. We would not accept this.

But, having awareness doesn’t mean you’ll do anything about it. Humans are adept at rationalizing behind-the-wheel behavior through seven distinct stages of distracted driving denial. The evidence is everywhere. An NSC survey found, for instance, that while the vast majority of drivers understand driving is risky, nearly half said they still send texts while driving. And an Allstate survey found that while two-thirds of drivers rated themselves as “excellent” or “very good,” many admitted to texting, speeding and engaging in other unsafe behaviors.

So, there’s a huge gap between how good drivers think they are, and how good they actually are. That’s why employer-mandated change and new tracking devices may be just the intervention we need to encourage and reinforce behavioral shifts and create new norms. There’s nothing like changes in corporate culture and conduct and a related performance review to prompt attention, forced discipline and improvement. Having both your life and livelihood on the line is a powerful combination.

If every company set a zero tolerance for cellphone use while driving; educated workers on the risks; provided training and assessments; and set an example by having organizational leaders refuse to conduct business in the car, it would have a profound impact on employee attitudes. Imagine the broader effect on society as adults start to model improved behavior for the next generation of drivers for whom cellphone resistance is even more challenging and who will face even more complicated road dynamics as increased automation is introduced and things get invariably messier before they get inherently safer.

From a company’s perspective, this isn’t just about keeping workers safe, it’s also about protecting the bottom line. Companies face significant liability risks if an employee gets in a collision on the job while talking or texting on the phone. An Ohio company, to cite just one example, had to pay $21.6 million in damages after one of its drivers crashed into another car and killed one of the occupants while talking on the phone. The emotional toll on colleagues and families is incalculable.

In the past, when the business community, policy makers and the public are pointed in the same direction, we’ve tackled other public health crises. We cut smoking rates dramatically. We’ve made huge inroads against drunk driving with increased sensitivity at office parties, in schools and at home gatherings. We’re addressing the obesity epidemic in company cafeterias and through more transparent labeling on packaged goods and in restaurants. We are fighting cancer on multiple fronts.

Fortunately, we don’t have to cure cancer to tackle this one, just our fear of missing out when the phone buzzes and our addiction to the dopamine surge we get each time we touch our phone. It’s time to turn our combined attention to the scourge of distracted driving. It’s an epidemic with a cure at our collective fingertips and with the right encouragement and reinforcement coming from the boss.

Celia Stokes is CEO of eDriving, the worldwide leader in driver training and risk reduction. Paul Atchley Ph.D. is a brain scientist focused on distracted driving research and Professor of Psychology at University of Kansas.