It should go without saying, texting while driving can be a lethal combination because it requires drivers to look down at their phones rather than the road ahead. A relatively new phenomenon, texting is as dangerous as driving drunk, perhaps even more so.

According to a recent Car and Driver study, drivers who text while operating a vehicle are 3-4 times slower than drunk drivers in applying brakes to avoid collisions. Although many states have already or will employ some form of texting ban by 2010, such legislation has been slow to catch on because oftentimes it takes a tragedy before lawmakers react.

Establish Best Practices

The goal of every fleet manager is to run the company fleet in the safest, most cost-effective way possible, which means controlling expenses from company vehicle repair and liability claims due to driver negligence.

To establish that control, fleet managers should apply a best-practices safety and risk management policy to each driver, running a motor vehicle record (MVR) check and evaluating accident data before determining driver eligibility for a company vehicle, according to Bob Martines, president and CEO of Corporate Claims Management Inc. (CCM), a fleet management company specializing in accident management, subrogation, and safety training based in Ivyland, Pa.

"Our role is to educate our clients and help them recognize a potential problem individual. Fleet managers should ensure drivers know the obligation to their company and be aware of the 'what-ifs,' including lawsuits and injuries," Martines cautions.

Catching Up with Technology

Martines believes driving while texting is at least twice as dangerous as drunk driving because drivers are so distracted, they're not watching the road ahead. He doesn't allow his salespeople to use cell phones while driving on company time.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), by January 2010, 28 states will have prohibited, in some form, text messaging while driving. Texting is significantly more prevalent now than even a year ago, one factor in why bans have been slow to catch on.

Now, however, companies are becoming painfully aware of the consequences of driver texting habits.

Last year in New York State, a fatal accident involved a group of high school students on their way to a dance. The driver was texting, which led to a head-on collision with a truck, killing everyone in the vehicle. It took a tragedy such as this before the state reacted and passed a texting while driving ban, according to Martines. Some companies actively back legislation. Ford Motor Co. endorses a U.S. Senate bill to ban handheld text messaging while driving.

"I believe in the next six months to a year, texting laws will be mandated across the board," Martines predicts. "Laws aren't quick enough to keep up with technology. Once there is a loss of life, people get injured, or companies get sued for millions of dollars, that's when people tend to react."


Employ Harsher Penalties

Martines doesn't believe issuing a fine to offenders will help solve the texting problem, but employing penalties similar to drunk driving and including jail time may help prevent this problem from becoming epidemic.

To ensure drivers comply with the company's safety regulations, some fleet managers utilize incentive-based programs, awarding drivers credit for completing ongoing training and time served without an infraction.

Such measures, according to Martines, have led to a decrease in accidents and reductions in paid-out liability claims because drivers understand they must adopt better driving habits.

In an accident in which  injury or death results from the other driver's negligence, that driver can be held accountable. An incident in Pennsylvania involved a truck driver using his cell phone and texting on another phone. Thus distracted, he ran off the road and through a fence, stopping about five feet shy of a backyard pool where children were playing. The driver was arrested on the spot, Martines recalls.

"If he had killed somebody, he most likely would have been brought up on manslaughter charges. Review all the frivolous lawsuits over the years, including people who have sued McDonald's for hot coffee," Martines suggests. "Risk to a company is magnified significantly when someone drives a company vehicle while using a cell phone. I tell my employees, 'If you are on your cell phone while driving on company business, that will be your last function as our company employee. You will be terminated immediately.' " He also urges employees not to use a cell phone while driving at any time.

Too Many Distractions

Many factors come into play while driving a vehicle, including dealing with "road ragers" and millions of drivers pressed to get from Point A to Point B. The more distractions put in front of drivers, the more likely they will be involved in an accident.