Distracted driving has become an epidemic in the United States. In 2009, distracted drivers contributed to more than 5,400 traffic fatalities, accounting for 16 percent of all traffic fatalities that year. In response, last October the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), in partnership with the Department of Transportation (DOT), launched an initiative to combat this deadly practice.
You might ask: Why OSHA? Why distracted driving?
The answer: Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of worker fatalities year after year. There is no doubt that the grim consequences of distracted driving we observe in the general population are seen in work-related crashes as well.
Millions of workers’ jobs require them to spend part or all of their workday driving – visiting clients and customers, making site visits, or delivering goods and services. The extensive research on the impairments associated with distracted driving makes it clear that these workers are being exposed to a serious hazard when an incoming text from a supervisor or an urgent email request from a client draws their focus away from the road.
OSHA is first targeting its efforts on texting because it encompasses all three types of dangerous distraction; it takes your cognitive focus, your eyes and your hands away from the work of driving. A Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration study finds that drivers’ eyes are off the road for 4.6 out of every 6 seconds while texting. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of a football field while wearing a blindfold.
We want to send a clear message to managers, supervisors and workers that their company must neither require nor condone sending or reading text or e-mail messages while driving. That’s why we encourage employers to join the more than 1,600 companies surveyed by DOT and the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS) who are protecting over 10.5 million workers by enacting policies prohibiting distracted driving. These policies have become, as NETS Chairman Robert Windsor puts it, “essential pieces of employee protection equipment.” Here at OSHA – and across the Federal government – our boss, President Obama, has made his position on distracted driving on the job perfectly clear. He instituted a Federal Government-wide prohibition on the use of text messaging while driving on official business, as stated in the Executive Order on Federal Leadership on Reducing Text Messaging While Driving. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have banned texting on the roadways; now OSHA is doing its part in the workplace.
We are asking employers to declare their vehicles “text-free zones” and to back up that declaration with worker education and with policies that explicitly ban texting while driving and establish work procedures and rules that do not make it necessary for workers to text while driving in order to carry out their duties. Employers should set up clear procedures, times, and places for drivers’ safe use of texting and other technologies for communicating with managers, customers, and others, and incorporate safe communications practices into worker orientation and training.
Mobile communications technology has in many important ways redefined how we work, but it’s crucial to ensure that it doesn’t do so at the expense of workers’ safety. As workplace hazards change, we must continually clarify and update our policies to address potential hazards.
Companies are in violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act if, by policy or practice, they require texting while driving, or create incentives that encourage or condone it, or they structure work so that texting is a practical necessity for workers to carry out their job. When OSHA receives a credible complaint that an employer requires texting while driving or who organizes work so that texting is a practical necessity, we will investigate and where necessary issue citations and penalties to end this practice.
When you are driving on the job, your job is to drive, not to text or talk on the phone. Driving itself is dangerous work. Any practice that increases the risks of that work is unacceptable. Over the course of its 40 year history, OSHA has played an important role in establishing a culture of safety in the workplace. It’s time to work together – by talking to our friends, family and colleagues – and get the message out about the dangers of distracted driving and the importance of keeping eyes on the forward road.