Traffic deaths are on the rise; 35,092 people died on our nation’s roads in 2016, an increase of 8 percent and the greatest year-over-year increase in 50 years. There are many factors contributing to this issue, including a rise in distracted driving (smartphones and gadgets), higher road congestion and less experienced drivers.
On top of that, costs continue to rise (car damages have increased by $300 per part in the past five years; medical costs have increased by seven percent in the past year; the cost of a auto-related death has increased by 12 percent since 2015). What does these mean for businesses and employees?
According to Travelers, the issue is two-fold, fiscal and safety:
- Many businesses don’t know they’re liable to cover employee auto accidents that occur during business hours, even when the employees are using personal vehicles.
65 percent of businesses have employees who use their personal automobiles for business activities (Travelers Risk Index).
- The costs for employees potentially could include long-term loss of income and medical care (depending on the injury).
Chris Hayes, second vice president, Risk Control, Transportation for Travelers, and Dave Nelson, second vice president, Product, Commercial Accounts for Travelers, sat down to talk to EHS Today about these trends and to provide insight on the most common road distractions, the top costs to support these trends and how employers can better protect themselves and employees.
EHS Today: Traffic accident deaths rose 8 percent in 2016, which is the largest increase in nearly 50 years. What do you think contributed to that increase?
Chris Hayes: The increase in auto accidents and fatalities is a serious problem. There are several contributing factors. As the economy has recovered, people are driving more, and there are simply more cars on the road. Distracted driving remains a big factor. Technology-related distractions like texting, mobile apps, phone cameras, GPS devices and infotainment systems have increased the risk of accidents.
EHS Today: Do you have any information on the number or circumstances of the traffic fatalities that were work related?
Chris Hayes: According to Bureau of Labor Statistics information from 2015, transportation incidents are the leading cause of fatalities at work. Roadway work fatalities were up 9 percent in 2015, to 1,264. Almost half (629) involved a semi, tractor-trailer or tanker truck. Of the 253 non-roadway work fatalities in 2015, the vehicle most frequently involved was a farm tractor (73).
According to the National Safety Council, the average work-related motor vehicle injury claim costs $72,540, nearly twice as much as other work-related injuries.
EHS Today: More and more vehicles are “smart,” with safety features like automatic braking systems, blind-spot indicators and backup cameras. Even so, traffic fatalities are on the rise. Does this mean that smart technology isn’t working to help curb serious accidents?
Chris Hayes: No. Smart technology continues to help curb accidents, but not all vehicles have these enhancements. In fact, most don’t. It will take time for newer vehicles with these enhanced safety features to become the norm on American roads.
And while smart technology is certainly helpful, you should never rely on it completely. Safe driving still requires a lot of driver attention. It’s important that drivers remember these are tools designed to aid in driving, not to take the place of the driver; the driver’s role in staying alert and safe behind the wheel is still critical. A driver who isn’t paying attention may ignore the cues these technologies can provide.
Many of these safety features also can be disabled, and a driver may choose to do so if they get annoyed by receiving a lot of alerts they feel are inconsistent with their perspective of the situation.
EHS Today: Does technology increase the price of fixing today’s vehicles?
Chris Hayes: It certainly can. While technology has helped increase vehicle safety, it can also raise the cost of repairs. It’s no longer as easy as replacing a bumper or a side mirror; many of these parts contain digital equipment that is vital to their operation and makes them more expensive to replace.
EHS Today: Many businesses don’t know they could be liable for the cost of an employee’s auto accident, even if the employee was using their own car during business hours. Can you explain why they are liable and best practices to address this issue?
Dave Nelson: Many businesses rely on employees to use a personal auto for work, either infrequently (such as a trip to the post office) or on a regular basis (such as marketing and sales calls to customers). The employer will have what is known as “vicarious liability” associated with an employee operating a personal vehicle while on company business.
Vicarious liability refers to a situation where someone is held responsible for the actions or omissions of another person. In this case, if an employee is involved in an auto accident that harms a third party, the company may be liable for injuries to the third party – even if the employee was operating their personal automobile at the time of the accident. The important distinction is that the employee is operating their personal auto for work purposes.
Best practices for controlling this exposure starts with a written policy. The policy should include expectations regarding the driver’s behavior while driving on company business and require that their motor vehicle record be monitored periodically against an established standard. The policy may also state an expectation that the employee purchase personal auto insurance with certain minimum limits and not allow a business-use exclusion to be attached to the policy.
EHS Today: Sixty-five percent of businesses have employees who use their personal automobiles for business activities, according to the 2016 Travelers Business Risk Index. Should companies allow this? Are companies liable if an employee’s personal car malfunctions and causes an accident while it is being used for work?
Dave Nelson: The degree to which employees use their personal vehicles for business will vary by business type and job function. A fast-food restaurant may not have a need for employees to operate their cars on company business at all, while a pizza restaurant may hire employees solely to be delivery drivers with their own vehicles. It’s up to each business to determine if the use of employee vehicles makes sense for their business.
Employers should establish written standards associated with the use of employee-owned vehicles. It would be appropriate for the employer to expect a vehicle to be properly maintained in accordance with manufacturer recommendations as a condition of employee use. However, the primary or contributing cause of the vast majority of all accidents is driver error, so focusing on proper employee behavior behind the wheel will be the best approach to controlling this exposure.
EHS Today: How can employers protect themselves (and employees) from vehicle-related accidents, injuries and fatalities?
Chris Hayes: Great question. For starters, a business needs to be aware of who is driving on their behalf and have a risk management plan that accounts for all drivers. This includes not only drivers of trucks and service vehicles, but also company cars and even employees driving their own vehicles for work. Create a culture where safety is taken seriously. Historically, we’ve seen severe accidents occur when employees who don’t typically drive as part of their job get behind the wheel, even for trips on the work site.
A written program is great, but an effective safety program should start with senior management. When safety is embraced by supervisors and that is seen by employees, it can make a big difference. It’s also important for a safety program to maintain consistent expectations across all levels of the organization. If senior management takes a “do as I say, not as I do” approach to addressing bad driving habits, employees are less likely to follow policies. Cellphone use is a great example of this. Employees may have read and acknowledged a “no cellphone” policy, but when their manager calls, their first instinct is to pick up the phone. It’s key to set the expectation that safety comes first and calls can be returned later.
There is a wide range of driver training tools available to businesses, and while these tools can help to reinforce key concepts of driving safety (such as speed and space management), training shouldn’t be the cornerstone of driver safety program. It is better to hire safe drivers and support them than to hire a risky driver and hope to correct years, or decades, of unsafe driving practices.
Beyond training, the use of telematics is an effective way to increase safety in an organization. Having a clear strategy for how to use the information generated by telematics, such as follow-up on driving patterns or influencing driver management and coaching programs, will help ensure its value and success. A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study revealed a link between effective driver behavior-management systems and reductions in risky driving behavior, but this correlation only holds true when the business successfully uses the information they’ve gathered to coach drivers on how to improve safety. Businesses need to act consistently on any telematics information they receive that indicates potentially problematic driver behavior, and enforcement should be the same at all levels of the organization.