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​Illustration by Boris Séméniako​​​

Behind the Wheel: Stopping Distracted Driving

It was another quiet night at the rail yard. Leon, a security officer, was making his usual rounds in the SUV provided by the rail company.

As he turned the car around a corner, his cell phone slipped out of the cup holder. He grabbed it and placed it on his lap. But as the SUV's wheel hit a bump, the phone fell to the floor next to his right foot. With the car still in motion, Leon reached down and fumbled unsuccessfully for the phone.

In the process, his foot slid from the brake and hit the accelerator—propelling the SUV into a shipping container.

Fortunately, Leon was not injured. But his client's vehicle didn't fare so well. How was he going to explain the crumpled front end to his manager at his contract security firm?

When it comes to accidents like this, there is usually a straightforward explanation: distraction. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, distracted driving is involved in up to 52 percent of typical driving activities.

Accidents involving distracted driving injured around 390,000 and killed 3,477 people in 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration ranks auto accidents as one of the top causes of workplace death.

Despite the widespread availability of safer vehicles, traffic deaths are on the rise in general. The National Safety Council reported traffic deaths topped 40,000 in 2016, a 6 percent increase over the previous year, and making that year the first since 2007 when more than 40,000 Americans died in motor vehicle crashes.

Distraction may be an obvious culprit, but it is not a simple one. A distracted employee driver is a symptom of a businesswide problem. Considering the threats security officers deal with daily, a mundane task such as driving may not register as an urgent concern. But driving is a serious threat.

Unsafe driving habits are a real threat that warrant a reasoned response. Security firms should have policies and procedures in place for training, monitoring, and other processes that reinforce a safe driving culture. Attending to driver safety is crucial for security firms looking to protect their workforce—and their bottom line. ​

Distracted Driving

When most people think of distracted driving, they likely picture someone with one hand on the wheel and the other on his or her smartphone. Though cell phones are a popular form of distraction, distracted driving is defined as any situation in which the driver is not attending to the operation of the vehicle.

Broadly, distracted driving takes three forms: manual, visual, and cognitive. Manual distractions take the driver's hands from the wheel, visual distractions take the driver's eyes from the road, and cognitive distractions take the driver's mind from the task of driving.

For example, turning to talk to someone in the backseat of a vehicle is a visual and cognitive distraction. The driver's mind is on the conversation and his or her eyes are turned from the windshield.

Digital distractions are particularly nefarious because they combine all forms of distraction. The driver's hands, eyes, and mind are all occupied with the phone or GPS unit, rather than focused on the act of driving.

In the claims the author's company reviews, it sees evidence of distracted driving where no device was involved.

In one recent incident, no distraction was involved other than cars on the road. An officer was driving at night during a significant portion of her patrol. As her late shift drew to an end, she became concerned about a car and motorcycle speeding behind her and began watching them in her rearview mirror. Before she knew what was happening, her patrol vehicle ran into a tree. The vehicle was totaled; the officer was fortunate to walk away with a minor injury.

This claim also revealed other ways to think of distracted driving—as either an unintended action or a decision. This officer made a decision—to watch the rearview mirror rather than the road—but she was likely suffering the unintended consequences of fatigue. Often, drivers take these actions and make these decisions over and over again with little consequence, until it's too late.​

Unforeseen Consequences

Unsafe driving habits threaten officers' safety and other drivers on the road. That threat to physical safety should be everyone's primary concern, but another concern that cannot be overlooked is the financial consequences.

Executives might think "that's why we have insurance," and a good commercial auto insurance policy helps cover legal fees, bodily injury claims, and damage to other vehicles in an accident.

But that still leaves organizations without patrol cars for several weeks in the event of a crash. They will still need to pay the deductible and for the consequences of productivity lost to time spent in litigation.

They may also need to pay a workers' compensation claim or hire a new employee. And firms may pay higher insurance premiums for years to come—if they are even able to secure a commercial auto policy.

Businesses can also be held responsible for an employee's irresponsible driving behavior. Take, for example, the case of an accident caused by an employee's distracted driving in which another driver is killed. The family could bring a wrongful death suit against the employer. If the company did not have a policy in place forbidding texting, or if it failed to review a driver's U.S. state motor vehicle record (MVR), it could be added to the lawsuit and be liable.

Plus, organizations are likely to lose the trust of their clients. One of the most pervasive consequences of an accident caused by employee negligence is damage to a company's reputation. Considering that security professionals are tasked with protection, distracted driving is counter to the job description. If an accident involving a company vehicle makes the evening news, that company's logo is portrayed in a troubling context—one that does not convey safety and security.​

What Employers Can Do

Understanding the consequences and sources of distracted driving helps point us in the right direction. With a comprehensive employee driving strategy, companies can create a safe driving culture, which depends on the following four practices.

Define and enforce hiring policies. Sometimes it's said that businesses "hire the problem." That's because many employee-based accidents could have been predicted based on past driving behavior; a person's driving history is the best indicator of his or her future driving performance.

U.S. employers can access a job candidate's driving history through an MVR. They should consider the entirety of a candidate's driving history, for every state in which he or she has lived, but pay particular attention to red flags like driving under the influence. A company may adopt other red flag standards that preclude a candidate from a job involving driving, such as five moving violations in the past three years.

Road tests should also be a part of the hiring process for positions that require driving. This gives hiring managers the ability to review a candidate's key driving behaviors, like seatbelt use, signaling, and stopping completely.

While reviewing candidates' performances and MVRs, employers should ask themselves, "If we held no auto insurance, would I still hire this person?" If the answer is no, employers should heavily consider that in the hiring decision.

Establish policies and procedures. A written employee driving policy is the foundation of a safe driving culture. This provides concise prohibitions against specific distractions, such as texting, eating, and smoking, as well as clear guidelines for alternative actions, such as pulling over in a rest area to make a phone call.

It should include consequences and disciplinary measures, as well as how these measures escalate with multiple violations. Because it deals with the condition of employment, a lawyer and senior management should be involved in reviewing and shaping this policy.

These policies do not just apply to on-the-ground officers. Managers should make it easy for employees to follow driving guidelines.

For example, only call an employee on patrol when he or she is not scheduled to be behind the wheel. Practicing what is preached helps create a safety culture.

Furthermore, it's helpful to have procedures for regularly reassessing the competency of employee drivers. A twice-yearly ride along or road test reinforces key driving skills and enforces the employee driving policy.

Monitor vehicles. Another way to enforce driving policies is through monitoring. Telematics devices are in widespread use and for good reason. They are easily installed and provide a way for a vehicle to communicate with managers, sharing location information and red flag behaviors like hard braking or speeding.

Other technologies are useful for combating digital distractions. Tools like Cell Control block the use of cell phones or GPS devices within a company vehicle.

Maintain documentation. One relatively low-tech tactic goes a long way towards protecting officers on the road and a company's reputation: sticking to a regular vehicle maintenance schedule.

Employees can get involved in this, submitting a monthly report on vehicle performance that can identify problems before they become real trouble.

Not only does this prevent the obvious—breakdown and malfunction—but it can be the best defense a company has when accused of negligence after an accident. If enforced and documented properly, both regular maintenance and employee driving policies can counter claims of negligence and help control claims costs.

These four practices are far more than cost-saving measures. The entire reputation of the security business is based on safety. A safe driving culture will go far in supporting the reputation of officers and the business as a whole. 


Tory Brownyard is the president of Brownyard Group. For more information, contact [email protected]. ​​