Behind the Wheel at Work

NIOSH Center for Motor Vehicle Safety

Behind the Wheel at Work is an eNewsletter bringing you the latest news from the NIOSH Center for Motor Vehicle Safety.

Volume 5 Number 2 June 2020

Distracted Driving

What’s the science behind cognitive distraction? Are cell phones the main cause of distracted driving crashes? What should you include in a distracted driving policy? Let’s explore answers to these distracted driving questions.

Update on the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Response

While the NIOSH Center for Motor Vehicle Safety will continue to share valuable safety information in our quarterly Behind the Wheel at Work eNewsletter, you can stay up to date on the COVID-19 response in real time on the COVID-19 webpage or sign up for the COVID-19 newsletter.

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Keep Your Mind on Driving

Sketch head brain gear, Business man.

Driving requires our full attention, and distractions get in the way. Three types of distraction affect our ability to drive safely: visual, manual, and cognitive. Visual distractions, such as reading a text message, and manual distractions, such as reaching for items in the vehicle, might be easier to recognize and understand, as they involve taking your eyes off the road and hands off the wheel. In this article, we focus on cognitive distractions, which affect your ability to be fully engaged in driving, even when your hands are on the wheel and you’re watching the road.

[1] Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile
[2] Understanding the distracted brain: Why Driving While Using Hands-Free Cell Phones is Risky Behavior
[3] Dingus TA, Guo F, Lee S, et al. Driver crash risk factors and prevalence evaluation using naturalistic driving data. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2016;113(10):2636-2641.
[4] Atchley P, Tran AV, Salehinejad MA. Constructing a publically available distracted driving database and research tool. Accident Analysis & Prevention. 2017;99, Part A:306-311.
[5] Vivoda JM, Pratt SG, Gillies SJ [2019]. The relationships among roadway safety management practices, collision rates, and injury rates within company fleets. Saf Sci 120:589-602.
Safety Tip
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As part of your distracted driving policy, consider checking employees’ cell phone records any time they are involved in a crash. Research has shown that companies that do this have significantly lower crash rates.

How to Develop a Distracted Driving Policy

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A policy to reduce distracted driving in your workforce is a critical part of a motor vehicle safety program. Successful implementation of a policy demonstrates commitment to the safety of your workforce, helps prevent distraction-related crashes, and can help manage your organization’s liability in the event of a crash.

As you develop your policy, think about each of the elements in the following checklist. Not all may apply to your organization.

  • Who will we involve in developing the policy ?
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    As with any occupational safety initiative, support from the highest levels of your company is critical to success. If high-level leaders visibly commit to the policy and follow it themselves, everyone in the company is more likely to accept the policy. Involving unions and safety committees from the beginning will also increase the chances of worker buy-in.    
  • Who will the policy cover?
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    A distracted-driving policy covers everyone in the company, including executives and managers. Companies that employ contract or temporary workers should consider whether the distracted driving policy will apply to those workers. Many companies require that contractors follow the same motor vehicle safety policies as their directly-hired employees. If this is the case, the distracted driving policy also applies to them.
  • Which vehicles will be covered?
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    For highest levels of safety and reduced liability, the policy should cover all of the following: vehicles leased or purchased for company business, including authorized personal use of those vehicles; employees’ personal vehicles driven on company business; motor pool vehicles; vehicles leased or purchased by contractor companies; and rental vehicles.
  • What devices will the policy cover?
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    Here, it helps to be as specific as possible. Based on research on the dangers of cognitive distraction, the policy should prohibit the use of both handheld and hands-free cell phones for texting, talking, placing, or answering calls while the vehicle is in operation. The policy applies regardless of who owns the device: the company or the worker. Many companies also prohibit in-vehicle use of other devices such as tablet computers, programming of GPS and navigation systems, or interaction with any system that requires manual or voice interaction.
  • Will emergency use be permitted?
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    Most company policies allow cell phones to be used in emergencies. Specify that the vehicle must be safely parked to do so.
  • What other exceptions, if any, will be permitted?
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    This may depend on the type of work. For example, law enforcement agencies rely on in-vehicle mobile data terminals to check motor vehicle records and retrieve data, and other first responders have similar needs. Distracted driving policies for first responder agencies should incorporate specific guidelines to account for their special operating situations.
  • What are employees expected to do once the policy is in place?
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    Many policies include instructions to employees that will help support the prohibition of cell phone use (e.g., placing the device in the trunk of the vehicle while driving, and recording a voice message that lets callers know you are driving and will respond when it is safe to do so).
  • What administrative actions will support the policy?
    business man and woman icon
    Many companies include safety performance as part of supervisors’ periodic evaluations. Success in implementing a distracted driving policy could be a component of that evaluation. Organizational units that develop innovative ways to promote the new policy might receive special recognition. Consider checking employee cell phone records any time they are involved in a crash. Research has shown that companies that do this have significantly lower crash rates.
  • Will we use technology to monitor compliance with the policy?
    people with electronic screen with play button icon
    Technology can help monitor compliance with the distracted driving policy. Phone apps that automatically block incoming calls are used by many companies. In addition, many companies use in-vehicle monitoring systems (IVMS) as a driving improvement tool. IVMS with video cameras can identify cell phone use that occurs with risky driving behaviors such as hard braking and lane departure, offering a tool for effective driver coaching.
  • What are the consequences for violating the policy?
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    Clear communication and follow-through are key here. However, there is no single approach that will work for all companies. Some companies apply progressive discipline as the number and severity of violations increase. In other companies, any violation of the distracted driving policy is grounds for dismissal.
  • How will we prepare to roll out the policy?
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    Set the stage for the new policy well in advance of the planned implementation date. Frequent communication and a positive tone are essential. Educational campaigns, group discussions, and awareness training can all help promote acceptance of the policy before it is implemented. In addition to giving an orientation to the new policy, these activities might also be used to inform employees that distracted driving covers more than use of cell phones and other devices: it also includes reaching for dropped objects, eating and drinking, and grooming.
  • How will employees acknowledge that they have read and understand the policy?
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    Employees should acknowledge that they have read and understood the policy. This process might be part of activities to inform employees about the policy. The acknowledgment should be placed in employees’ training or personnel records.
  • What resources will help me develop and implement a policy?
Quiz Resources

NSC [2015]. Employer Liability and the Case for Comprehensive Cell Phone Policies

NHTSA [2020]. Research note: Distracted driving 2018.

IIHS/HLDI. Distracted Driving: Cellphone use by drivers

Dingus TA, Guo F, Lee S, et al. [2016]. Driver crash risk factors and prevalence evaluation using naturalistic driving data. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113(10):2636-2641.

Reduce Crash Risks During These Distracting Times

body of car damage by accident

In an earlier issue of Behind the Wheel at Work, we focused on journey management, defined as a planned and systematic process of reducing transportation-related risks within a company’s operations. During the reopening of businesses, adopting journey management principles can protect the health of your workforce in addition to reducing the risk of crashes and injuries.

Images to Promote Focused Driving

More Information