News confirming that the engineer of the Los Angeles commuter train that crashed last week, killing more than 20 people, engaged in text messaging while on the job underscores the need for employers to consider policies banning employee use of cell phones while driving on company business. Though it remains to be seen whether the engineer was texting at the time of the crash, the proliferation of electronic devices, such as Blackberries, and their potentially addictive use is helping to make "distracted driving" an increasing problem on the road. Simply put, distracted drivers are becoming more dangerous to themselves, their passengers and other motorists. Although distracted driving is a public problem that is not unique to employers, employers must recognize that they likely will be the "deep pockets" should a distracted employee cause a car accident. In fact, if the distracted employee also is injured in the accident, a workers’ compensation claim is also a strong possibility.
Some states have enacted laws restricting cell phone use while driving. Ohio is not one of them. As a result, Ohio law enforcement presumably is not obliged to police distracted driving (except in obvious cases of erratic driving). Therefore, to help manage their potential liability from distracted driving, Ohio employers should strongly consider banning the use of cell phones, Blackberries and similar devices while driving on company business as well as from conducting company business on such devices at anytime while driving. Otherwise, whether as a result of employees texting friends while driving on company business or responding to an urgent e-mail from the boss while driving, employers risk potentially significant liability.
For such policies to work, however, employers and employees will need to work together to ensure that the electronic device policy is enforced in a way that respects the fact that the employee may not be able to instantaneously respond to work issues while they are driving.