Nancy is a bus driver for the Nashville Mass Transit Authority. She describes her initial skepticism with the installation of Phone Blox and how she now sees the benefit in reducing accidents due to distracted driving.
Earl Rhodes is the Safety Manager with the Nashville Mass Transit Authority. Earl describes his experience with Phone Blox in reducing accidents and terminations due to improper use of a cell phone. Among the safety achievements, two years after installing Phone Blox no accidents have been associated with using a cell phone within their fleet.
Joe Stumpf is Supervisor of Transportation Services at Saint Louis University. Joe offers his perspective on the benefits of using Phone Blox on the campus shuttle buses both for the student passengers as well as the university team.
By Ginny Foster, Edited by David Hubbard
Distracted driving is a hot topic this year as enforcement of the federal ban on commercial vehicle operators’ use of handheld cellphones while driving kicks into high gear. The law applies to companies whose vehicles cross state lines and weigh more than 10,000 pounds, or carry at least 15 passengers and weigh more than 26,000 pounds.
Drivers who violate this mandate by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) face fines of $2,750 for each offense and loss of their CDL for multiple violations. Companies that require or allow drivers to use handheld phones while driving face a maximum penalty of $11,000.
The company’s liability risk increases dramatically when its drivers use either a work or personal cell phone, or both. Companies are scrambling to alleviate their concerns about cell phone liability.
As such, many have implemented a cell phone policy for their drivers. In cases involving bus accidents, plaintiffs’ lawyers are requesting and looking at cell phone records to determine cause. While this looks great on paper, the reality is more complex. A zero tolerance cell phone policy results in violations, which can lead to driver terminations. Qualified, seasoned drivers are often lost due to momentary misjudgment. Other companies experience continued liability despite company policy because the driving culture remains unchanged. Even though a written policy may dictate that no driver use a cell phone while operating a vehicle, it is easier said than done.
Many drivers carry their cell phones in their pocket or other discrete locations and check to see who is calling while behind the wheel — even if they do not intend to reply to or pick up a call. Holding a phone and looking at the screen still constitutes cell phone use, which undermines any written policy.
The most effective method an employer can implement to limit liability includes three levels of prevention: establishment of a standard, providing drivers with training, and providing a tangible safety reminder. This three-tier approach limits liability and establishes clear safety expectations. Training alone is not enough to change culture. Enforcement of a rule prohibiting cell phone use may be sporadic. Taking a step beyond safety training and written policy will give drivers the tools that enable safe habits.
Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority, Nashville, TN, was able to combat both of these issues by installing a simple product called Phone Blox™ on its buses. The agency participated in the 2010 pilot project that won the American Public Transportation Association GOLD Safety Award. After installing Phone Blox on all fleet vehicles Nashville MTA has now not only limited its liability, it has seen an increase in driver retention and cost savings.
Phone Blox is a patented device marketed by Redline Electronics LLC, St. Louis, MO, that provides a physical barrier between driver and cell phones while the vehicle is in operation. Phone Blox attaches to the dashboard or interior front of the vehicle within sight of the driver and requires a connection to ignition or transmission lines. Phone Blox locks as the ignition engages.
A successful program that eliminates liability and enhances employee retention requires a change in the way drivers manage cell phone use. Phone Blox is a catalyst to change behavior and help eliminate the loss of valued employees.
Many drivers find that carrying a personal cell phone makes them feel more connected to family and friends. However, drivers have difficulty not answering a ringing phone, especially if they know if might be a loved one calling.
“It’s just a natural reaction,” says Nancy [last name withheld on request], a driver at Nashville MTA. “If I have it there and I hear it ringing, I’m going to want to answer it.”
Installed in conjunction with a zero tolerance cell phone policy, the protocol for answering a ringing phone is clear with Phone Blox: Pull to the side of the road, turn off the ignition, then answer the phone.
Nancy says it strikes a good balance between safety and convenience.
“I still have my cell phone with me,” says Nancy. “If all else fails and I have to make a call, I can still have the phone with me, but it’s no longer a distraction.”
A tangible reminder encourages safe habits on a daily basis and demonstrates a solid commitment to prevent distracted driving. Nashville Safety Manager Earl Rhodes compares the tangible reminder of Phone Blox to a common safety device we all use.
“Phone Blox is like a seat belt,” says Rhodes. “We have our operators wear a seat belt so that they are safe, and if they are in an accident, they don’t fall out of the seat. Phone Blox is a safety deterrent as well. It keeps the cell phone out of their hands so they don’t use it while the bus is in motion.”
He says the cost savings are significant because of Phone Blox.
“Prior to Phone Blox, we had a number of grievances and arbitrations that we had to deal with involving operators using their cell phones that resulted in terminations,” says Paul Ballard, CEO of Nashville MTA. “Since we implemented Phone Blox, I can’t remember the last time we actually had arbitration on a cell phone issue.”
A case involving discharge arbitration can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000. The average time spent addressing grievance cases amounts to 32.4 days each year, according to 2011 CIPD survey. Prior to Phone Blox in Nashville, the average number of cell phone related arbitrations were two to three per year. Over the course of two years, with more than 200 vehicles, the agency estimated the cost savings associated with Phone Blox to be $250 per vehicle per year. The agency reports no cases have occurred since, and the device has paid for itself.
Accidents related to cell phone use while driving are preventable. Heavy civil and criminal liabilities follow accidents involving distracted driving. Fleet owners are especially vulnerable to losses if their safety programs do not include both policies and tangible support to keep their drivers off their cell phones while operating vehicles. BR
A: In many of these cases, the employee’s use of a cellphone or mobile device has been cited as the cause of the accident. A jury ordered an employer to pay $21.6 million to the family of a Florida woman who was killed when an employee in a company car rear-ended her because he was distracted and didn’t react when traffic slowed. A federal magistrate ordered an Alabama trucking company to pay $18 million because of an accident that happened when one of its drivers reached for a cellphone. An Arkansas lumber company was ordered to pay $16.1 million after its salesman caused an accident that crippled a 78-year-old woman.
Q: What steps should employers take to avoid or limit their exposure for distracted driving accidents?
A: All employers — not just those whose employees drive as part of their jobs — should not only have clear cellphone usage policies in place, but also take steps to train and educate employees on the policies and on the known dangers of cellphone use while driving. The best policies should extend beyond the requirements of state and local laws, and you should be very strict in enforcing them.
Q: What elements should be included in a distracted-driving policy?
A: Clearly state that it’s against company rules to text, email or use a handheld phone or communication device while operating a company vehicle, driving a personal vehicle for business use, or using a company-issued communication device while driving. Consider prohibiting the use of hands-free devices except in emergency situations. When essential calls must be made, instruct employees to pull off the road to a safe place.
Require employees to acknowledge in writing that they have read and will comply with the policy. Let employees know they are liable, too. Include a statement in your policy that employees bear sole responsibility for liability incurred from traffic violations or accidents involving the use of a cellphone or other electronic device while driving.