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Put down the phone. Be safe. #JustDrive

distracted driving- put down the phone

By Brian Poliafico, Underwriting Manager, North America Construction

When it comes to automobile accidents, the numbers don’t lie. Instead, they tell an alarming story related to the injuries, fatalities, and growing risks from distracted driving. According to the National Safety Council, more than 40,000 people died in motor-vehicle crashes in 2018. With over 273 million vehicles on the road, and about 40 percent of motor vehicle accidents being work related, businesses can do a lot to help employees get focused. These accidents also have a direct impact on a company’s bottom line. The US Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) estimates that motor vehicle crashes cost employers $60 billion annually in medical care, legal expenses, property damage, and lost productivity. It’s clear that as an industry, we need to renew our commitment to safer driving -- and it starts with distracted driving.

Impact of instant communication
A study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute concluded that people who text while driving are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash than non-distracted drivers. However, this increase in risk is still not garnering the traction needed to eliminate and reduce the risk. When there is a hazard in the workplace, executives and their management teams through safety committees and employee involvement develop solutions to mitigate the risk to ensure everyone’s safety. We need to take the same approach with the distracted driving hazard.

We live in a world of instant communication. Whether that communication is in the form of a phone call, text message or email, when we reach out to someone, we expect a response or “answer”—and we expect it fast. Companies often pay for cell phones and smart phones so employees who are in the field or traveling are readily accessible. This carries with it the implied expectation of a quick response to phone calls, emails and text messages which in turn increases the risk of an accident. Over the last five years, our phones have become integrated into the driving experience. Almost all new cars have touch screens, integrated touchscreens, Bluetooth voice commands (i.e., voice to text), in-dash navigation systems, etc. which some argue increase the distractions to the driver. Why? It’s simple. Research has shown that our brains cannot effectively perform two-cognitive skills at the same time. It must be one or the other. This raises a tough question for industry leaders -- do you want your employee to make it safely to the next meeting or project and assume the least amount of risk or is the telephone call so important you are willing to increase that person’s safety by 23 times?

Building a safety culture
As a safety and risk management professional, with experience in the petrochemical and nuclear power industries before joining the construction insurance industry, I’ve seen a lot over the last 20 years. Early in my career, we had banners stating, “Safety is #1,” “Safety is the top priority,” “Safety is our core value” and the list goes on. The organizations I previously worked for had a strong safety culture, high expectations for all employees, and established policies to reinforce the safety goals. This is where I see a big opportunity within the construction industry. The safety direction of a company starts with senior leadership. Senior executives are responsible for the culture of the organization and the safety of its people – and it begins with the company’s established policies.

In my view, one policy that can make a huge difference is for companies to issue a total ban on cell phone use while operating a company vehicle, or on a company phone while operating personal vehicle conducting company business. Is this possible? Yes. Is it realistic? Yes, and it falls back to what senior leaders put into the company’s policy statement. This ban should be in place irrespective of any state laws permitting the use of hands-free devices.

Policy statements: Holding people accountable
It’s easy to issue a policy statement banning the use of cell phones while driving. The hard part is implementation and holding people accountable. Success is directly related to how the message is communicated to employees, and in turn, how employees communicate with customers. Organizations that make this change will likely face numerous questions, complaints, and how it will be difficult to enforce. To get ahead of this and to drive new, safer behavior, here are some tips:

  • Everyone within the organization, regardless of level, should resist calling others on their cell phones during known driving periods or when employees typically commute. Take action to eliminate the calls. If you receive a call, let it go to voicemail, and return the call when it is safe for you to do so.
  • If reaching out to a person in your organization who is typically never in the office, look at their calendar (i.e., Outlook) and see if you the person might be driving BEFORE making the call. Supervisors need to be very candid with their employees about this and practice it. It means leading by example.
  • Employees should be empowered to NOT answer their phones if doing so would mean sacrificing their safety and the safety of others. Break that myth that if the boss is calling, it must be important. This is not always the case and the discussion can wait.
  • If an employee is expecting a call and they hear the call come through, he/should pull to a safe area and then take the call while the car is in “park”. Better yet, if you are anticipating a call, pull to a safe area ahead of time to take that call.
  • While driving, keep the phone turned off. Check messages and return calls when safety allows.
  • Apple and Android devices now have features you can activate so that everyone can place their phone on Do Not Disturb while Driving. Ensure that employees check the Settings for their individual devices to activate this feature. For fleets and individuals, there are also hardware devices that will do the same thing as long as they are “paired” accordingly.
  • Remind employees about the laws:
    • Talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving is banned in 16 states and the District of Columbia
    • Cellphone use by novice drivers is restricted in 38 states and the District of Columbia
    • Text messaging is banned for all drivers in 47 states and District of Columbia. In addition, novice drivers are banned from texting in two states (Arizona and Missouri)

Take action: risk engineering and resources
While many localities have enacted their own bans on cell phone use including text messages, we cannot rely on government regulation to change this behavior. Companies and individuals need to act and be personally accountable to make a difference. AXA XL can help. Our risk engineers can partner with businesses to boost their safety programs. We can help develop DOT-compliant driver and fleet safety programs and provide access to the National Safety Council’s (NSC) online defensive driving course. The NSC, Department of Transportation, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and AT&T are excellent resources for companies. For instance, the NSC provides a free, useable policy and supporting materials through their downloadable Safe Driving Kit. By taking action and utilizing these resources, companies have an immediate opportunity to boost safety and save lives. Don’t wait. #JustDrive.

About the Author
Brian Poliafico is an underwriting manager for excess casualty on AXA XL’s North America Construction team. He can be reached at

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