Cell Phone Policies for Employees Who Drive

Driving while using a cell phone can lead to accidents -- and employer liability.

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Cell phones are so common these days that it's hard to remember a time -- not much more than a decade ago -- when most of us used a phone that was tethered to a wall with a cord. The ability to have a conversation from almost anywhere with almost anyone makes the cell phone a necessity for modern business. But this extraordinary convenience brings with it safety concerns that employers must address through written policies.

This article explains why you need a policy and what it should include. For a sample policy you can tailor to your company's needs (along with policies on email, Internet use, social media, and more), pick up a copy of Smart Policies for Workplace Technologies, by Lisa Guerin (Nolo).

State Laws on Cell Phone Use By Drivers

Dialing and talking on a cell phone can be distracting. According to a year-long study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Association and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, almost 80% of the crashes the study recorded involved some form of driver distraction or drowsiness. The number one source of driver distraction? Using a cell phone.

Recognizing this, a number of states limit the use of cell phones while driving. These laws take several forms: Some require drivers to use a hands-free device if they want to talk on the phone, some prohibit younger or less experienced drivers from using any type of cell phone, and some allow officers to cite drivers for using a hand-held cell phone if the driver is pulled over for another offense.

Employer Liability for Employee Accidents

If your employees use cell phones -- whether their own phones or phones issued by the company -- for work, you should have a policy prohibiting them from doing so while driving. Even if your state doesn't restrict cell phone use by drivers, studies have repeatedly shown that using a cell phone while driving is dangerous. And, if an employee causes an accident while doing business on a cell phone, your company could be held liable for damages. Consider these examples:

  • A stock broker was making a cold call to a potential client while driving when he struck and killed a motorcyclist. Although the broker was using his own cell phone and driving to a nonwork event, the plaintiff argued that the brokerage firm should be found liable because it encouraged employees to use their cell phones for work without training them on safety issues. The brokerage eventually settled the case for half a million dollars.
  • An employee of International Paper was using her company cell phone when she rear-ended another driver on the freeway, causing injuries that eventually required the other driver to lose her arm. The company paid more than $5 million to settle the case.

What Your Policy Should Include

Your policy on employee use of cell phones should:

  • prohibit employees from using cell phones while driving
  • require employees to have car insurance and valid drivers' licenses
  • tell employees what to do if they receive a call while driving (for example, ask the caller to wait until the employee can pull over or tell the caller that the employee will call back), and
  • address hands-free technology. For example, if your company will allow employees to use hands-free technology while driving, you should issue them hands-free equipment. You should also explain that safety remains a concern: Employees should keep all calls while driving brief and should end any call that distracts them from the road.

Of course, there are other matters you may want to include in an employee cell phone policy, from appropriate use of company-owned phones to rules for using personal cell phones at work. 

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