Could Texting in Car Be an Employer Liability?

Texting while driving is now illegal in 20 states, but the potential liability doesn't end with the driver, according to Zurich. The insurance giant said companies would be well advised to issue guidelines that spell out that employee use of cellular devices while driving is neither encouraged nor condoned.

"How you communicate the policy is a big item," Jim Noble, Zurich's line of business director, told InternetNews.com.

"If you have a policy but your internal practice encourages cell phone use while driving, the policy is essentially without merit." As an example, Noble said it would be ill advised for a company to suggest a conference call during "downtime" when it knows that several staffers will be available in their cars. "That's probably worst than not having a policy -- setting a policy and then abusing it," he said.

U.S. automakers and wireless providers have come out in favor of laws that favor a ban on texting while driving.

And Zurich pointed out that cell phones and laptops aren't the only guilty instruments. MP3 players are now being banned on factory floors, while order screens on forklifts are being removed because they can distract the operator, the company said.

There have been several recent court cases already where so-called "distracted driving" was an issue. In one case, a fatal train wreck in California that killed 25 passengers, the train engineer was believed to have been texting on his cell phone shortly before the crash and never hit the brakes. The incident led to a ban on cell-phone use by train operators in California while on duty.

Zurich suggested guidelines for creating an electronic usage policy should include:

* Restricting use of all types of technologies (cell phone, Blackberry, laptop, MP3 player) in the company distracted driving policy.

* Prohibiting use of non-work-related technology gadgets in non-office work areas to help minimize distractions and other safety-related hazards.

* Enforcing rules consistently and fairly with all employees.

Zurich also noted that a company may not be directly liable for its employees' actions, but it can be held vicariously liable for the dangerous behavior and negligent actions of its employees while conducting company business. The precedent for vicarious liability was set many years ago when pizza delivery drivers, encouraged by the 30-minutes delivery promise of the pizza maker, allegedly displayed negligent and dangerous driving behavior.

"These guidelines seem like a sensible thing for companies to implement," Pund-IT analyst Charles King told InternetNews.com.

"It's another indication of the degree to which smartphones and other mobile technology have permeated the culture," he added. "Personally, I can't believe people text while driving, but if there is even a chance they might, it makes sense for companies to have a policy in place that establishes a layer of discretion between themselves and employees that may break the law."

The federal government has a Web site devoted to the topic of distracted driving, and the Obama administration has already issued orders directing federal employees not to engage in text messaging while driving government-owned vehicles, when using electronic equipment supplied by the government while driving or while driving privately owned vehicles when they're on official government business. The order also encourages federal contractors and others doing business with the government to adopt and enforce their own policies banning texting while driving on the job.

David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.


smartphones, texting, Obama administration, liability, distracted driving