Ban on Texting While Driving Backed by OSHA Official

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Companies will be held responsible for cell phone-related accidents caused by their employees if the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration decides that corporate policies contributed to the mishaps, David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for safety and health, said at an April 18 symposium focused on preventing accidents caused by distracted drivers during the course of their employment.

“We've never issued a citation or fine for distracted driving, but now we are prepared to and are putting that information out,” Michaels told participants at the Symposium on Prevention of Occupationally Related Distracted Driving. “We're looking at a number of cases now … If we find an employer has set up a situation where an employee has a strong incentive or is required to use their phone, and that had resulted in an accident that has any sort of personal damage, those are the first cases we want to take on because we think that message will be a very strong one.”

Texting Ban Not Seen Requiring Rulemaking

OSHA actions will not require a new rule or standard, Michaels said. Instead, the agency will use the general duty clause of the OSH Act requiring employers to provide a safe workplace that is free of recognized hazards. Michaels said using cell phones in vehicles to send and answer text messages is recognized as a hazard, citing President Obama's 2009 executive order banning federal employees from texting while driving on the job or using government equipment and the 30 state laws banning texting while driving.

OSHA wants to work with employers to help them establish safety programs, Michaels said. He cited as an example a program used by Johnson & Johnson, the health care products and pharmaceutical supplier, in which the company has banned its U.S. employees from using their cell phones while driving on the job or in company vehicles.

Michaels said OSHA was not ready to enforce a ban on talking on a cell phone while driving at work, but that prohibition is a long-term goal for the agency.

Transportation safety researcher Jeffrey Hickman, of Virginia Tech's Center for Truck and Bus Safety, told the symposium that one study of truck drivers found that 60 percent of inattentive driving actions, such as drifting into the wrong lane or a sudden stop, involved some type of distraction, from texting to reaching for an object in a back seat. Drivers who texted while on the road were 23.4 percent more likely to have a distracted incident than the average driver, he said.

The evidence was not so clear about potential hazards of talking on a cell phone while driving. Hickman cited research showing that as long as drivers kept their eyes on the road, even while talking on a cell phone or CB radio, they were only slightly more likely to be distracted than other drivers. However, he added, drivers are at risk if they take their eyes off the road to dial a number or read a message.

By Bruce Rolfsen