Has this ever happened to you?

You go out to your vehicle, unlock the door, start the engine, drive off, and 20 minutes later, when you arrive at your destination … you can hardly recall what happened during your ride. Yet, perhaps during this ride you were checking directions, enjoying a sandwich, using your music player, talking on the phone and doing all of this while navigating through rush hour traffic!

Risky business

Was your mind’s eye actively tracking traffic and road conditions or was it focused on these other activities? This form of distracted driving is a serious safety challenge for today’s drivers and puts everyone at risk. The unwitting loss of critical information is called “inattention blindness” and studies show that, in particular, this regularly occurs when drivers are engaged in phone conversations.

No doubt, most of us have read and seen media reports of troubling crash statistics related to distracted driving. What is it about this simple activity that causes a driver’s performance capabilities to diminish? As a safety professional, it is important to understand how cell phone calls dramatically reduce the amount of information drivers can process to safely operate a vehicle. But let’s first take a look at one of the significant financial problems this issue is creating for employers.

The changing attitude of courts and jurors regarding distracted driving is a major factor in the growing number of high dollar awards being handed down. Recent cases demonstrate that there is little tolerance when business drivers are involved in crashes with other drivers while engaged in phone calls. Awards are becoming punitive (the recent $24 million verdict against Coca-Cola is an excellent example). Punitive damages can be devastating for a business as this exposure is generally excluded from insurance coverage. When awarded, punitive damages can be up to 3 times the underlying award amount. Many businesses never recover from this uninsurable loss and are forced to close their doors.

Company policy

What is your employer’s tolerance level regarding use of cell phones and other electronic devices while driving for company business? At a minimum, it should match judicial tolerance levels. If your policy has not been updated in a while, it’s a good idea to conduct a review and determine if current policy standards adequately protect your company and its drivers in today’s legal environment.

Aware of this changing legal climate as well as the real-life dangers from distracted driving, many employers have written or amended their safety policies to prohibit the use of hand held phones while driving on company business.

A number of states have also passed laws mandating similar requirements. Very commendable and smart. Properly monitored and enforced, this requirement can lower drivers’ exposure to avoidable incidents and protect the people they share the road with. But what about hands-free devices? Many policies are either silent about their use or actually approve using them. This brings us back to this article’s main topic — the mind’s eye.

Inattention blindness

Studies from major universities have concluded that when you speak on a cell phone — and this includes hands-free phone calls — the phenomenon called “inattention blindness” occurs. Very simply, this is a person’s inability to perceive things that are in plain sight because the brain has prioritized and assigned its processing capacity elsewhere. Research scientists have concluded that people have a limited “attention” capacity. So as you unintentionally allow your mind to switch priorities from safely operating a vehicle to some other secondary activity, critical details of your surroundings disappear from your mind’s eye.

What does this mean to the average driver? Simply — get on the cell phone, get engrossed in a conversation, and many of the critical safety details one needs to recognize and understand while driving start disappearing! Maybe it’s a child running out into the street chasing a ball, a car that is stopped in the middle of traffic to pick up a passenger, or a traffic light turning red.

Do you really want to drive this blindly?

Do you want your business associates driving this way?

Of course not!

But every time a person drives and engages in a cell phone conversation, the driver and everyone else sharing the road with this person are at risk. This situation is not the exception anymore. The latest crash statistics as reported by the National Safety Council now show that distractions are a contributing factor in 1 out of every 4 crashes.

Take responsibility

Let’s face it, the temptation to engage in calls while driving is always present. For many drivers it almost seems to be an addictive response to answer a ringing cell phone. But the decision and the responsibility to stay safe is totally ours. And, just as we have seen in the Coca-Cola case, while perhaps unintentional, these choices can have severe consequences for all parties involved.

Spend a moment now and reflect on what you have been actually doing during your own drive time. If you have allowed your mind’s eye to focus on non-essential driving activities, make no mistake about it … you are at risk.

Make a real commitment to yourself to eliminate distractions. Then help your employer develop a smart distraction-avoidance policy that encourages your drivers to keep their mind’s eye on the road ahead. This collaborative approach, up and down the organizational chart, will certainly make a difference in the lives of your drivers by helping them stay focused and arrive at their destinations safely!