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updated: 12/27/2011 6:14 AM

Employers who ban cellphones while driving find productivity doesn't suffer

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  • Daniel Chengary, senior account manager at Wheels Inc. in Des Plaines, stops in a parking spot along Northwest Highway to check email. His company has a policy against cellphone use while driving on company time.

       Daniel Chengary, senior account manager at Wheels Inc. in Des Plaines, stops in a parking spot along Northwest Highway to check email. His company has a policy against cellphone use while driving on company time.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Daniel Chengary, senior account manager at Wheels Inc. in Des Plaines, stops to check his email before getting in his car as he is not allowed to use his cellphone while driving on company time.

       Daniel Chengary, senior account manager at Wheels Inc. in Des Plaines, stops to check his email before getting in his car as he is not allowed to use his cellphone while driving on company time.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Daniel Chengary, senior account manager at Wheels Inc. in Des Plaines, checks his email before he starts to drive as he is not allowed to make cellphone calls while driving on company time.

       Daniel Chengary, senior account manager at Wheels Inc. in Des Plaines, checks his email before he starts to drive as he is not allowed to make cellphone calls while driving on company time.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 

Editor's note: This is another in a series of occasional stories about the epidemic of distracted driving and efforts to curb it.

As a senior account manager in charge of 35 corporate clients and up to 10,000 vehicles, Daniel Chengary's trusty Blackberry was as vital to him as water to a fish.

Or so he thought.

This summer, Chengary's boss did the unthinkable: He banned employees at Des Plaines-based Wheels Inc. from phoning, texting or emailing while driving during the work day.

Daniel Frank, president of Wheels' services division, said the company took action after researching the dangers of distracted driving. One study that hit home with Frank indicated that texting is more dangerous than drunken driving.

"We would never allow someone to drive drunk on the job," said Frank. "That's when I realized it's a real hazard, not just for employees but for our clients and our employees' families."

Wheels is a fleet management company that provides and services vehicles for corporations. "I felt we had a responsibility to do something about it," Frank said.

"It's important to set an example for our clients and have the best practices."

This month, the National Transportation Safety Board took a tough stand against distracted driving, recommending lawmakers prohibit motorists from using cellphones or electronic devices.

In 2009, an estimated 448,000 people suffered injuries and 5,474 died in distracted-driving related crashes, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports.

For some in corporate America, those numbers are changing attitudes.

The prevailing wisdom that a salesman needs to be in touch with customers every minute of the day -- even when he's driving at 65 mph -- or that a supervisor should get an instant response to her text -- although her employee is switching lanes on a busy road -- doesn't hold true, the National Safety Council's David Teater said.

"Your productivity will increase if you're more focused on driving than on passing time while talking on your cellphone," said Teater, head of transportation strategic initiatives at the Itasca-based NSC.

"I remember when I used to talk on the cellphone while I was driving. Eighty percent of my calls were to colleagues because I had an hour to kill. We talked mainly about business but it was nothing critical. Research shows that decisions made while multi-tasking generally are not good decisions."

In 2009, the NSC surveyed corporate cellphone policies. With 2,004 companies responding, results showed: 23.4 percent prohibited hands-free and hand-held phones and wireless devices while driving; 34.6 percent permitted hands-free devices; and 42 percent had no distracted driving rules.

Of those businesses with total bans:

• More than 20 percent saw a drop in employee crash rates and property damage with the distracted-driving prevention policy.

• More than 70 percent observed either an increase in productivity or no difference at all.

• About 65 percent noticed increases or no impact on workers' morale.

Wheels, which handles 300,000 vehicles nationwide, is continuing to thrive despite denying its salesmen the chance to multi-task behind the wheel.

"That time is not very productive," Frank explained. "Trying to hold a meeting with a client while driving doesn't lead to a high-quality call. There's a need to follow up later and incomplete or inaccurate information if your whole mind is not on the conversation."

Chengary of Arlington Heights now checks his emails and messages before turning on the ignition or pulls over if a call is essential. A Blackberry addict, he finds "it's not that terrible. It's something you get used to. Safety has to come first."

Numerous studies have indicated using hands-free phones is just as dangerous as a hand-held device because it's equally distracting from a cognitive standpoint. However, not all businesses enforce a comprehensive crackdown.

Northbrook-based Allstate forbids its more than 70,000 workers to use a hand-held cellphone while driving on company business, an official said.

Edward Hospital in Naperville prohibits the use of hand-held cellphones while driving, requiring employees to use a hands-free device or pull off the road before making or receiving a call.

"Edward implemented the policy several years ago for the health and safety of our employees," spokesman Keith Hartenberger said. "The policy was created due to the prevalence of mobile phones and devices and the accompanying dangers of making or receiving calls while driving."

If fewer accidents and uninterrupted productivity don't convince CEOs to implement distracted-driving prevention programs, they should consider the potential for lawsuits, Teater said.

"We think there's substantial liability for companies that condone or look the other way or encourage or require employees to use a phone while driving," Teater said.

Attorney Todd Clement agrees. The Dallas-based litigator specializes in distracted-driving lawsuits. He's made a number of settlements for undisclosed amounts, including one case where a texting TV technician smashed into a car at 70 mph, killing a 30-year-old mother and her 82-year-old grandmother.

"Any time a cellphone is involved it enhances the value of any case," Clement said. "The employer is absolutely liable under the law."

The proliferation of workers texting, surfing the Internet or chatting on cellphones inevitably will lead to crashes that put employers before a jury. Businesses without meaningful distracted-driving programs are exposing themselves, Clement said.

"You can't ostrich this thing -- your butt is still hanging out there. If you have a lip-service policy it can be extremely harmful. Generally, it can be easier to plead ignorance than to be accused of knowing what the right thing is and not doing it," Clement said.

Companies with strict anti-distracted-driving policies that educate employees and enforce the rules will face a better outcome in court, he said.

For businesses seeking to institute a policy curbing distracted driving, the National Safety Council has a free how-to kit available at nsc.org.

It won't hurt a bit, Wheels' Daniel Frank said.

"For our sales people and account managers, it was a bit of a process of education," Frank said. "Once they understood our only goal was to protect them, they realized that's a positive thing."

Frank himself usually turns his phone off while driving to avoid temptation.

"When you get a message it's like a squirt of dopamine. It's like an addictive drug. It's a bad habit, and like any other habit, it's a matter of training yourself not to."

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