Back to Basics, Personnel Safety, Transportation

Back to Basics: Preventing Distracted Driving

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine how to prevent distracted driving.

Distracted driving is a serious problem with serious consequences. In 2020, 13% of all motor vehicle traffic accidents in the U.S. involved distracted drivers, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). That same year, 3,142 people died in crashes involving a distracted driving; 587 non-occupants (e.g., pedestrians and cyclists) died in a crash that involved a distracted driver.

NIOSH says research has shown that drivers who are using cell phones may be watching the road but fail to see up to 50% of the information in their driving environment. The missing half of information may include a stop sign, a stopped vehicle, or a child. Distraction is present during 52% of normal driving, with common distractions including interacting with a passenger (15%), using a cell phone (6%), and using systems such as the radio or climate control (4%).

On average, a non-fatal injury crash at work that involves distraction costs the employer $100,310, according to NIOSH.

Most U.S. states ban texting while driving and a growing number also ban the use of handheld devices. Drivers of commercial motor vehicles (e.g., large trucks and buses) are not allowed to send or read texts while driving or use a handheld device while driving.

Recommendations for employers

NIOSH provides the following recommendations for employers to prevent distracted driving:

  • Ban all phone use (texting, handheld, hands-free) while driving a company vehicle and ban use of company-issued phones while driving a personal vehicle.
  • Require workers to pull over in a safe location to look up directions, text, or to make or receive a call.
  • Consider using phone-blocking technology to limit workers’ cell phone use while driving.
  • Consider using technology that detects and warns drivers of distracted driving behaviors (such as cameras that detect when eye gaze is not on the road).
  • Prepare workers before implementing these policies by communicating:
    • That driving is their primary job when they are behind the wheel
    • How distracted driving puts them at risk of a crash
    • What they need to do to comply with your company’s policies
    • What action you will take if they do not follow these policies
  • Consider having workers acknowledge that they have read and understand these policies.
  • Provide workers with information to help them talk to their family about distracted driving.

Recommendations for workers

NIOSH provides the following recommendations for workers who are driving:

  • Do not use your phone while driving.
  • Pull over in a safe location to look up directions, text, or to make or receive a call.
  • Make necessary adjustments (e.g., adjust controls, program directions) to your car before your drive.
  • Do not reach to pick up items from the floor, open the glove box, or try to catch falling objects in the vehicle.
  • Avoid emotional conversations with passengers, or pull over in a safe location to continue the conversation. For normal conversation, passengers in the vehicle can often help lower crash risk for adult drivers by keeping them focused on driving.
  • Focus on the driving environment: the vehicles around you, pedestrians, cyclists, and objects or events that may require you to act quickly to control or stop your vehicle.

Create a distracted driving policy

Employers should create a policy to reduce distracted driving as part of a motor vehicle safety program. NIOSH recommends considering the following elements as you develop a policy:

  • Who is involved in policy development? Getting high-level leaders to visibly commit to the policy and follow it will help convince everyone else in the company to get on board. Working with unions and safety committees from the start will also help get worker buy-in.
  • Who is covered by the policy? The policy should cover everyone in the company, including executives and managers. If you employ contract or temporary workers, you should consider whether the distracted driving policy will apply to them as well.
  • Which vehicles are covered? The policy should cover the following: vehicles leased or purchased for company business, including authorized personal use of those vehicles; employees’ personal vehicles used for company business; motor pool vehicles; vehicles leased or purchased by contractor companies; and rental vehicles.
  • Is emergency use of devices while driving permitted? Most company policies allow cell phones to be used in emergencies, but your policy should specify that the vehicle must be safely parked to do so.
  • Are there other exceptions? This may depend on the type of work, such as law enforcement and other first responders, who rely on in-vehicle mobile data terminals to check motor vehicle records and retrieve data. Policies for first responder agencies should incorporate specific guidelines to account for their special operating situations.
  • What should employees do when the policy takes effect? Many policies include instructions to employees that will help support the prohibition of cell phone use (e.g., placing the phone in the trunk of the vehicle while driving and recording a message that lets callers know you are driving and will respond later).
  • What administrative actions will support the policy? When considering safety performance as part of supervisors’ periodic evaluations, include success in implementing a distracted driving policy. Encourage organizational units to develop innovative ways to promote the new policy. Consider checking employee cell phone records any time they are involved in a crash.
  • Do you use technology to monitor policy compliance? Many companies use phone apps that block incoming calls. Another tool you can use is an in-vehicle monitoring system, which when equipped with video cameras can identify cell phone use that occurs with risky driving behaviors.
  • What are the consequences for violating the policy? NIOSH says there is no single approach that works for all companies, but clear communication and follow-through are important. Some companies apply progressive discipline as the number and severity of violations increase. Others consider any violation of the policy grounds for dismissal.
  • How will the policy be implemented? Use educational campaigns, group discussions, and awareness training to promote acceptance of the policy before it is implemented. Use these activities to highlight that distracted driving includes reaching for dropped objects, eating and drinking, and grooming.
  • How will employees acknowledge that they have read and understood the policy? Employees should acknowledge that they have read and understood the policy; this can be included as part of the activities to inform employees about the policy. Keep the acknowledgement in the workers’ training or personnel records.


The following resources can provide guidance on developing and implementing a distracted driving policy:

  • National Safety Council (NSC): The NSC Safe Driving Toolkit includes numerous tools to support development and implementation of a distracted-driving policy.
  • Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS): NETS offers a distracted driving module as part of its Drive Safely Work Week campaign materials.
  • ANSI Z15.1 standard: ANSI Z15.1 – 2017 is a national fleet safety management standard that includes requirements for distracted-driving policies.

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