A speeding train enters a curve in northwestern Spain on the evening of July 24; by all accounts, the driver took the curve too fast. The train derailed, killing 79 people and injuring many more, including the train driver. While crashes often involve several factors – in this case, a high rate of speed was one – reports show that the driver took a 2-minute telephone call from a co-worker that ended 11 seconds before the crash.
The driver of the train, Francisco Jose Garzon, was charged July 28 with 79 counts of homicide by professional recklessness and a number of counts of causing injury by professional recklessness.
The National Safety Council (NSC), which long has lobbied for employers to adopt cell phone use policies for employees, released a statement, which said: “We know using a cell phone while operating a vehicle is risky. The human brain is incapable of simultaneously processing two cognitively demanding tasks, such as talking with someone on a cell phone while operating a vehicle. This cognitive distraction increases a driver’s crash risk fourfold and is the reason hands-free devices do not offer a safety benefit.”
The NSC pointed out that the driver could have exposed his employer, Spanish railroad company Renfe, to liability because the conductor was talking on his cell phone to a coworker at the time of the crash. A spokeswoman for Renfe told reporters that the company does not have a policy regarding employee cell phone use on the job.
“When employees are involved in cell phone-related crashes while operating within the scope of their employment, employers can be held legally responsible. Without strong laws prohibiting cell phone use while driving, drivers must self-regulate or be required by some kind of policy to drive cell-free. Otherwise, drivers put their own safety and that of those around them in jeopardy, and drivers expose employers to an increased liability risk,” said the NSC.
Safety-minded employers intent on going beyond federal safety rules and regulations are implementing policies prohibiting employee cell phone use while driving. The NSC points out that such policies are not just a risk-reduction safety effort. “While organization-wide cell phone policies help ensure employees’ safety, they reduce employers’ liability risk. Employers understand employees are the organization’s greatest asset. Avoiding productivity losses and significant legal fees are critical and can be achieved with the help of a cell phone policy.”
The U.S. Federal Railroad Administration prohibits all electronic device use by train crews and others in safety-sensitive positions – a rule the agency implemented after a catastrophic crash in California involving a commuter train conductor who was using a cell phone. There are not exceptions for hands-free device use or personal emergency situations. The FRA warns that it can and will subpoena cell phone records, which show the date, time and location of cell phone use if the agency feels it is necessary. The policy should serve as a template for other agencies, said the NSC.
Even though there is no federal law banning cell phone use while driving and most state and cities that have banned cell phone use and texting while driving allow hands-free devices, the NSC estimates nearly 6 million people in the United States are covered by employer policies that prohibit the use of all cell phones – even ones with hands-free operation – while conducting any kind of company business, or while using a company vehicle or phone.
“Employers take these actions because they know that in many cases, laws are minimum guidelines that do not adequately protect employees, the public or businesses. Employers also know that merely educating their employees about risks does not often change behaviors,” said the NSC.