Employers may be liable for injuries and damage where an employee’s job-related cell phone use contributed to the accident. Whether the cell phone use is within the scope of employment depends upon many factors including the employee’s job duties, who provided the phone, when the accident occurred, whether it was a business call, and whether the employee was complying with the employer’s policy on cell phone use.

PennDOT statistics show there were 5,715 accidents linked to the use of hand-held phones and 367 accidents attributed to hands-free phones in Pennsylvania from 2002 to 2006. Mark Stuckey of MSNBC.com reports on a new study that concludes that hands-free phones can reduce the number of traffic fatalities and accidents. The study by Jed Kolko, a fellow at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, estimates that the 4,000 annual traffic fatalities in California could be reduced by 300 people as a result of a pending hand-held cell phone ban for California drivers. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, many states are adopting laws banning hand-held cell phone use. Pennsylvania state laws don’t address cell phone use, but many local ordinances prohibit all but hands-free operation.

A business’s liability can be significant.  For example, a Georgia employer paid $5.2 million dollars to settle a claim related to an employee’s use of a cell phone while driving.  Businesses should manage their potential liability by adopting a policy on cell phone use and then enforcing it. A policy should consider addressing the following:

  • Banning cell phone use while driving for all employees or classes of employees depending on job responsibilities.
  • Mandating that employees comply with all applicable state and local laws governing cell phone use.
  • Requiring employees to use only hands-free devices while driving.
  • Providing company cell phones with hands-free features.
  • Prohibiting the use of text message and e-mail features while driving.
  • Providing safety training on cell phone use including:
    • Requiring employees to pull off the road to make or take phone calls.
    • Instructing employees to avoid or to terminate phone calls involving stressful or emotional conversations.
    • Prohibiting cell phone use in adverse weather or difficult traffic conditions.
    • Restricting driver cell phone use to brief conversations.

Update:  We need frequent reminders that the policies we write as HR professionals have real life implications.  Here is a link  to bring this point home.  Employees should also consider their own civil, criminal and emotional liability:  Driver Hits, Kills Pedestrian While Texting.

Update 1/12/09:   Ban Cell Phones While Driving, Safety Council Says