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OSHA Says Employers Must Ban Texting while Driving

by Boyd Byers

Recently, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced an initiative to combat work-related distracted driving. OSHA’s first point of focus is texting while driving.

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Safety concerns prompt new laws
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of worker fatalities, and distracted driving increases the risk of such accidents. Last year more than 5,400 people died in crashes linked to distractions, and many thousands more were injured, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Texting is one of the most notorious driver distractions. The risk of a crash or near-crash event for a driver who is text messaging is more than 23 times higher than that of an undistracted driver, based on National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.

The dangers of distracted driving haven’t gone unnoticed by lawmakers. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order banning federal employees from text messaging while driving government-owned vehicles, using government-supplied electronic equipment, or driving privately owned vehicles while on government business.

In January 2010, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration implemented regulatory guidance that expressly prohibits commercial vehicle drivers (truckers and bus drivers) from texting while driving. A number of states have similar bans.

Now OSHA is tackling the problem of distracted driving. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act), employers have a general duty to provide a workplace free of serious recognized hazards. On October 4, 2010, Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, issued an open letter to employers about work-related distracted driving. The letter goes so far as to say that employers have a “responsibility and legal obligation” to have a “clear, unequivocal and enforced policy against the hazard of texting while driving.” Employers violate the OSH Act, according to the letter, “if, by policy or practice, they require texting while driving, or create incentives that encourage or condone it, or they structure work so that texting is a practical necessity for workers to carry out their job.”

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We’ve said before that employers are well advised to adopt a distracted-driving policy. Such a policy not only can help keep your employees and the general public safer by preventing accidents but also can limit your company’s liability exposure. The need for such a policy is now even more obvious in light of OSHA’s admonition.

A distracted-driving policy should clearly say that it is against company rules to text, e-mail, or use a hand-held phone or communication device while operating a company vehicle, driving a personal vehicle for business use, or using a company-issued communication device. As with any other policy, simply putting things in writing isn’t enough, your policy needs to be communicated to employees, taken seriously, and enforced by management. Require employees to acknowledge in writing that they have read and will comply with the policy. Discuss the policy and the dangers of distracted driving at your next employee training meeting. The life or job you save may be your own.

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Boyd Byers is an employment lawyer with Foulston Siefkin LLP. If you have questions about this article or need assistance developing or updating a distracted-driving policy, you can contact him at (316) 291-9716.