According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, distracted driving is a dangerous epidemic on America’s roadways. In 2011 alone, the agency reported, over 3,000 people were killed in distracted driving crashes.

Not only is distracted driving a cause for concern on a personal level, it is also extremely worrying to business owners. HVACR contractors send their employees out on the road every day, and they know it’s all too easy for anyone to become distracted at the wheel.

Everything from texting to eating to even answering a call from the office dispatcher can distract a driver’s attention from the road. And the possible repercussions from that moment of distraction can be serious and severe, including vehicle/property damage, injuries, and even death. To combat this epidemic, smart contractors are fighting back with policies and training aimed at keeping their techs’ eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.

A Written Policy

One of the first steps contractors can take to prevent distracted driving is establishing a written policy, according to Pete Chaney, director of safety and health for the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA).

Specifically, he noted that MCAA recommends contractors include the following in their policy: “Safe driving practices/rules that will help the company reduce the incidence of distracted driving; requirements for training all affected workers on the hazards associated with distracted driving and the contents of the company’s distracted driving reduction policy; and provisions that detail the disciplinary action that will be administered by the company when an affected worker violates the policy.”

Chaney added, “The policy writer should carefully consider the company’s goals regarding distracted driving reduction and write a policy that meets the company’s specific needs.” While a “no texting” policy is frequently set as a minimum standard, contractors across the country have developed and enforced varying policies.

In Line with the Law

Specific needs can vary depending on contractor location, since passenger car driving laws are set at state and local levels.

“In the state of Oregon it is illegal to talk on a cell phone unless you are using a hands-free device, and it is illegal to text,” said Travis Smith, owner and general manager of Sky Heating & Air Conditioning, Portland, Ore.

Smith has a fleet of 15 company vehicles, and he explained that his company’s driving policy is in line with state law. “While we do allow eating and drinking (nonalcoholic of course), we do not allow texting and only allow talking on the phone while driving if the technician is using a hands-free device,” he said. “If we need an employee to text or email us something, we tell them to wait until they reach the next job site or are pulled off the road and stopped.”

“In New York it is illegal to be texting or on the cell phone while driving, therefore that is what we follow,” said Eric Knaak, vice president of operations, Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning Inc., Rochester, N.Y. Isaac has approximately 150 vehicles on the road.

“We have a comprehensive driving program and we follow many of the NYSDOT [New York State Department of Transportation] guidelines for driving. The policy covers everything from vehicle operation, to safe driving, distracted driving, and vehicle care and maintenance,” he explained. “Employees are not allowed to use any handheld communication device while the vehicle is in gear. They are all issued and required to wear Bluetooth devices if they are on the phone while driving.”

“In California it’s against the law to use your cell phone unless it’s hands-free, and no texting is allowed,” said Russ Donnici, president of Mechanical Air Service Inc., San Jose, Calif., which has a fleet of 10 service vehicles. “Our policy is that all drivers are to observe all laws and be courteous drivers.”

Lisa Ziegler, HR manager for Environmental Conditioning Systems (ECS) in Mentor, Ohio, said while the company has no formal distracted driving policy; it has focused on distracted driving during its safety training. “We hold monthly safety meetings, and over the last nine months we have discussed this topic every month,” she said.

Ohio has a statewide law banning texting, so Ziegler explained, “We have discussed Ohio’s new state law, its effective dates of warnings and fines, and how to appropriately handle calls and text messages while driving company vehicles. During our meeting in January, we had all employees view a distracted driving video, we discussed coverage guidelines for insurability, and shared related stories and statistics of accidents and dangers.”

According to Rich Imfeld, president of IC Refrigeration, Ceres, Calif., his company policy restricts texting and cell phone use, and he makes it clear that employees who break driving laws are responsible for any fines.

He added, “Violations could lead to the opportunity to see the competition’s vehicle policy.”

Banning Phones

While some contractors promote the use of hands-free devices to keep employees’ hands on the wheel, others enforce a complete ban on the use of digital devices.

At GSM Services, Gastonia, N.C., a strict policy bans the use of any cell phones, according to Steven Long, president, residential divisions. “Having a true no cell phone usage policy in our society today is a tough one to enforce and be consistent with, but we decided several years ago that this would be our policy and we have stuck with it,” Long said.

This is also the case at Nicor Home Services, Naperville, Ill., an AGL Resources Co., according to Rich Dykstra, managing director of HVAC and field operations.

“We have instituted a policy nationally across all of the AGL Resources companies that employees driving our vehicles are absolutely forbidden from texting, talking on the phone, or using direct connect while driving,” Dykstra said. He explained, “When dispatch needs to talk to them, they will chirp them up and tell them to call in. At that point, the tech will pull over and call in.”

Training and Technology

At many contractors, training on distracted driving is now included as part of the company’s overall safety training program.

That’s the case at Mechanical Services in Orlando, Fla., according to Dennis Purvis, service/accounts manager. He noted that the company’s policy has a strict requirement for drivers involved in accidents.

“Any driver in an accident — whether their fault or not — has to do a drug test and defensive driver course,” he said.

Training the dispatchers along with the drivers is a crucial component to preventing distracted driving, several contractors said.

According to Ken Bodwell of Innovative Service Solutions, Orlando, Fla., “In the last year, we focused three of our safety meetings on distracted driving. We have paid special attention to the dispatchers and ask them to check the trucks’ GPS to determine if the vehicle is stationary before texting. If important we ask employees to pull over before placing a call.”

While training is the first step to making dispatchers aware of the dangers of distracting drivers, it must be followed up with vigilant reminders, according to Narissa L. Rampey, HR manager/owner of Air Assurance Co., Broken Arrow, Okla.

She explained, “We have put in place a distracted driving policy to make sure that people driving company vehicles aren’t using their cell phones, texting, or doing anything distracting while driving. We have to constantly remind people not to call unnecessarily to the techs while driving. If it can wait, please let it wait until you see [on the GPS] that they are stopped.”

She added that drivers have earpieces for communication to encourage them to keep two hands on the wheel, but she stresses the importance of preparation to minimize the need to communicate with the office from the road.

“We ask them not to be on the computer while driving and to plan for the job before they start driving — get the directions down, call, and check in before starting the vehicle, etc.,” Rampey said.

MCAA’s Chaney added that contractors can invest in technology designed to reduce or prevent distracted driving. “For example, there is GPS technology that prevents texting while driving,” he said. “There are also cell phone use-detectors in the market that let supervisors know when employees are texting or talking on their cell phones while driving.”

Paul Sammataro, president of Samm’s Heating and Air Conditioning, Plano, Texas, noted that his company’s driving policy bans texting and speeding and recommends hands-free calling. To encourage employees to comply with the policy, Sammataro said, “They know we receive alerts and can view all daily speeding events through our GPS software.”

While there is a range of policies and technology contractors can use to crack down on distracted driving, the overall goal is to increase safety. “Distracted driving is one of the leading causes of accidents, especially when you see a single-vehicle accident on well-lit roads during good weather,” Knaak said. “The more time we take to remind our employees about safe driving habits, the safer they are going to be.”

What Is Distracted Driving?

Distracted driving is any activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving. All distractions endanger driver, passenger, and bystander safety. These types of distractions include:

• Texting;

• Using a smartphone;

• Eating and drinking;

• Talking to passengers;

• Grooming;

• Reading, including maps;

• Using a navigation system;

• Watching a video; and

• Adjusting a radio, CD player, or MP3 player.

But, because text messaging requires visual, manual, and cognitive attention from the driver, it is by far the most alarming distraction. The best way to end distracted driving is to educate all Americans about the danger it poses.


Corporate Attitudes

Due to high-profile crashes, jury verdicts against employers, and a changing regulatory environment, the issue of employee distracted driving continues to be an important topic among safety and risk management professionals.

A 2013 survey, Corporate Attitudes to Employee Distracted Driving: 2012 Edition, presented by Aegis Mobility Inc., shared the responses of 547 professionals in the safety, risk, and fleet management disciplines from employers across a variety of different industries. The survey was designed to measure corporate fleet operators’ perspectives and attitudes toward distracted driving and how attitudes are changing over time.

Key Findings

• A majority of employers have already adopted distracted driving policies — 71 percent of respondents work for companies that have adopted some form of policy to manage employee use of mobile devices while driving.

• Employers without a policy will adopt one soon — Among 29 percent of companies without an existing policy, the survey finds that 52 percent plan to adopt a policy. Of those, 55 percent plan to adopt a policy within the next 12 months.

• Efforts to enforce distracted driving policies remain steady — A total of 86 percent of respondents report that their companies take some measure to enforce distracted driving policies. This number is steady when compared to 2012 survey results.

• Current enforcement efforts are primarily manual and reactive — The most common method of policy enforcement is having employees attest (81 percent). Other enforcement methods include, training (75 percent), supervisor or peer observation (72 percent), post-crash discipline (54 percent), and random safety audits (40 percent).

• Confidence is lacking in current policy enforcement — While most companies are taking some steps to enforce compliance with documented policies, confidence in those efforts is limited. Only 32 percent report they are “very confident” that current methods are effective. Another 60 percent are “somewhat confident,” while 8 percent are “not confident.”

• Hands-free and zero tolerance are most popular policies — 2013 was the first year in which the survey asked employers to identify mobile device behaviors specifically prohibited by company policy. Forty-five percent prohibit all use, except hands-free. Forty-one percent prohibit all use, no exceptions. Twelve percent prohibit texting, emailing, and browsing, and 2 percent prohibit texting only.

• Interest in policy technology continues to grow — Twenty-two percent of respondents report that they plan to evaluate either device-based software, device analytics, or in-vehicle cameras within the next 12 months to better enforce compliance with distracted driving policies.

• Android and iPhone smartphones are fast growing, while Blackberry and push-to-talk phones are hanging in — Android and iPhone continue to grow rapidly and now represent 61 percent of corporate-liable smartphone devices. BlackBerrys have decreased, but remain prominent with 30 percent market share and appear to have good prospects to maintain share based on customer interest in its BlackBerry 10 device.

• The tablet wave is coming to commercial fleet vehicles — A full 27 percent of respondents currently equip employee drivers with some form of tablet computer. Of those, 73 percent are iPads and 27 percent are Android. Prospects for continued growth appear strong as 8 percent of total respondents indicate plans to deploy tablets to employee drivers within the next 12 months.

Source: Aegis Mobility.

Publication date: 5/13/2013 

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