Driving home recently, I was nearly run off the road by another commuter.  This driver appeared to be driving with her knees while text messaging on her phone.  As I avoided the swerving car and slowed to let the other driver proceed on her merry way, it was clear that this driver never noticed that she almost caused a collision.  

According to studies referenced in a recent NY Times article, drivers using cell phones are 23 times more likely to be involved in an automobile accident and drive about as well as drivers having a .08 blood-alcohol level –over the legal limit in most states.  As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported today, talking and texting on cell phones account for more automobile deaths each year than drunk driving.

Most employment and corporate fleet vehicle usage policies prohibit operating company vehicles under the influence of alcohol or other substances likely to have a detrimental effect on the driver’s alertness or responsiveness. Many employer policies also prevent the usage of cell phones in company owned vehicles or while on company-sponsored business unless hands-free devices are used. Given that we live in a world where Darwinian principles don’t work quickly enough to thin the herd of those too "distracted" to realize that they should not text message while driving, employers should considering adding specific prohibitions against using laptop computers, personal handheld devices, GPS/navigation devices and text messaging while driving to their vehicle fleet usage policies and other policies that govern employees who may drive as part of their duties and responsibilities.

One of the first highly publicized lawsuits dealing with distracted drivers using cell phones involved the case against Jane Wagner.  Ms. Wager was an associate for a large law firm.  On her way home from working long hours she struck and killed a 15 year old girl.  The girl’s family not only sued Wagner but also sued her law firm alleging that she was on a business call at the time of the accident.  The lawsuit initially sought 25-30 million dollars.  The law firm settled for an undisclosed amount but Wagner’s case proceeded to trial.  The jury awarded the family $2 Million.   In another case, an Arkansas lumber wholesaler, Dykes Industries, paid $16.2 Million to a woman who was severely disabled in a car accident involving one of its employees who was talking on his cell phone at the time of the accident. 

These cases involved drivers who were allegedly only distracted by talking on their cell phones.  Imagine what the verdicts or settlements would have been had the employees been texting while driving.  Employers should ensure that their fleet usage policies are updated to prohibit the types of activities employees may engage in while using company vehicles or on company business and should vigorously enforce those policies.  Failure to do so can give rise to potential tort claims when those employees are involved in accidents and there is an indication that the driver was distracted because of cell phone, PDA or other non-driving activity.