Put the Cellphone Away

In the wake of the National Transportation Safety Board recommendation last December that states and the District of Columbia ban the use of cellphones while driving, the company decided to adopt a similar ban: no employees may use their cellphones for business calls when they are driving. The policy took full effect on March 31.

“I think we learned that the world doesn’t end on one phone call,” said Doug Pontsler, vice president for environmental, health and safety at Owens Corning. “People find their own way to make this work.”

Owens Corning is not the only company to institute a ban on cellphone use by employees when driving. About a year ago, the National Safety Council, a nonprofit advocacy group, contacted Fortune 500 companies on their policies. Of the 150 or so companies that responded, 20 percent had a full cellphone ban in place, said David Teater, the group’s senior director of transportation strategic initiatives. He added that the council had seen an increasing number of companies adopt the policies in recent years. Still, there is no comprehensive data on how many companies have cellphone policies, he said.

The council also recommended a complete ban for all cellphone use while driving, because of more than 30 studies that found hands-free devices were no safer than hand-held because they did not eliminate distractions.

Oil companies were the first to put policies in place, according to Mr. Teater.

In the late 1990s, Shell International started to see an increase in fatalities among employees and contractors, mostly “due to drivers using mobile phones while driving,” said Mike Watson, Shell’s global road safety manager, based in The Hague, the Netherlands. A global ban on cellphone calls was put into place in late 2002, and strengthened in 2005 to include texting and hands-free technology.

The policy is strictly enforced, “up to and including dismissal,” Mr. Watson said. He said it has worked, not only because of enforcement but also because of training and awareness programs, and efforts like journey management planning. Frequent rest stops are factored into business trips, and phone messages indicate that employees will return calls when they stop driving, he said.

Initially, he said, the sales force was concerned that the company would lose business, but that has not been the case. Many customers who have seen Shell’s success now have their own policies, he said.

From 2008 to 2011, crashes were reduced by about 57 percent, though other safety initiatives, like speed reduction efforts, also contributed to the decline, he said. Now, officials at other companies have sought his counsel as their own crash rates have gone up. “I have probably spoken to 15 or 20 companies in the last six months,” he said, but they frequently struggle with how to put the policies into effect outside the United States. Shell currently operates in 90 countries, most of which do not have laws that ban cellphone use, he said.

Jack Hanley, executive director of the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety, a nonprofit public-private partnership said, “I think there is a sense of urgency” among companies to put distracted-driving policies in place.

Currently, 52 of the 54 members responding to the group’s 2011 survey have adopted some cellphone policy. Of those, 22 have enacted total bans. Mr. Hanley’s organization provides road safety materials and data, but does not set policy.

Mr. Pontsler at Owens Corning said company officials never assumed that employees would easily adopt the new policy. Initially, he said, “some people didn’t think it was a problem for them, but we shared with them that the data doesn’t support that.”

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