Cargill is believed to be the largest privately held corporation to impose a total ban on using mobile phones in company vehicles, according to the National Safety Council. Safety advocates hope such moves in the corporate world will shift attitudes everywhere. Here, a driver talks on the phone on Tuesday, April 2, 2013 in Montpelier, Vt. Vermont lawmakers are continuing their efforts to crack down on distracted driving, with bills that would boost the penalties for texting while driving and ban all hand-held electronic devices when driving through road construction zones. Two House committees are studying those measures, while prospects for a proposed outright ban on using portable electronic devices while driving appear slim. Vermonters already are banned from texting while driving and drivers under 18 are barred from using any portable electronic device. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

As of Jan. 1, Cargill ordered tens of thousands of its employees to go cold turkey when it comes to using mobile phones while driving.

The total ban means no texting and no talking on a phone in any moving vehicle owned, leased or rented by the company – even if the employee has a hands-free device. The new policy also puts the kibosh on doing company business on a phone while operating a personal vehicle.

“If you’re doing any Cargill-related business – if for example you have a conference call and you think you should take it from home on your commute into work in the morning — that’s absolutely not acceptable,” company spokeswoman April Nelson said. She said GPS devices necessary for navigation may be used so long as they are programmed before travel and mounted for hands-free use.

The Minnesota-based company, whose new policy applies to about 150,000 employees worldwide, is not the first or the largest to institute such a strict ban. But advocates at the National Safety Council believe Cargill is the largest privately held corporation to do so.

Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and chief executive of the National Safety Council, welcomed the measure, saying history has shown that changing the corporate culture can help shift attitudes in the rest of society. It’s also another sign of how many corporations have been trying to do what government – loosely defined – has been ineffective or unwilling to do since mobile phones first appeared 30 years ago,  she said.

“They’re really just looking at their risks and looking at the data,” Hersman said.

The National Safety Council says motor vehicle crashes are the most frequent cause of work-related fatalities and account for about 24 percent of all work-related injuries. The nonprofit organization, using  2010 data, estimates that at least 24 percent of all fatal crashes involved drivers using cell phones and that at least 160,000 crashed involved drivers who were texting.

If anything, driving while texting or talking on a mobile device has become ever more widespread since then. Some experts believe that recent statistics showing a dramatic increase in traffic deaths can be blamed at least in part on the widespread habit of texting or talking while driving.

Cargill — whose businesses range from agriculture to financial services — decided to act because of the ubiquity of smartphones and a growing number of statistics suggesting that these devices are too often the culprits in traffic crashes, Nelson said. There was no specific incident that caused the company to to implement the policy, she said.

“Overall, it’s making sure employees know of the dangers of driving while distracted and how important that Cargill feels that safety is first,” Nelson said.

Employees could be disciplined for infractions, with actions ranging from a talk with the boss to termination, but that will be decided on a case-by-case basis, Nelson said. She said the company is relying mostly on an honor system and peers to monitor and enforce the new policy.

“Right now, we are focused on stopping distracted driving and less on what the punishments will be for violating the policy,” Nelson said.  “We will look at factors such as how egregious a violation is, if someone is doing it repeatedly, if they have received warnings in the past, and other factors to determine the appropriate consequences.”

The National Safety Council, again citing 2010 figures, says 20 percent of the Fortune 500 companies imposed total bans. Some go so far as to conduct electronic sweeps of company-issued mobile phones to make sure that distracting apps, such as Pokemon Go, are not on them, Hersman said. And a survey cited by the Council found in 2009 that of 469 companies that enacted total mobile phone bans, only 1 percent believed productivity declined.

There’s some irony in corporations have reined in the use of mobile phones in vehicles. Hard-charging business people were among the first to see that drivetime didn’t have to be downtime with a mobile phone in the car. Some companies still shy away from imposing total bans for fear that productivity might suffer if employees couldn’t take business calls in  the car with a hands-free device.

But a corporation can be held vicariously responsible for the negligent behavior of an employee if the employee was engaged in work-related activity at the time of a crash. Over the past decade, many companies learned the hard way that they cannot expect employees to be in constant contact without also putting them at risk when they’re on the road.

One company was held liable in a crash involving an employee making work-related “cold calls” while driving to a private event on a Saturday night.  In a 2010 case in Texas cited by the Council, a jury awarded a $21 million verdict against a company whose employee was using a hands-free device to talk on a mobile device when she hit another vehicle.

So it’s tempting to think that companies are just doing this to cover their fannies in the event that someone takes them to court over a crash. A National Safety Council white paper on the topic notes that if employers can show that they implemented a total ban, educated employees about the policy, monitored their compliance and enforced the policy, they will be in a more defensible position should someone sue them.

But at some level it doesn’t matter what the motivation is if it keeps people safe.  Hersman said she simply hopes that steps taken by corporations such as Cargill will do for distracted driving what workplace smoking bans did for tobacco use. At one time, smoking was accepted almost everywhere,  and now it’s not. And people are no longer shy about asking others to put out the cigarette. Hersman said she hopes that eventually, more Americans will no longer view texting while driving as acceptable behavior, either.

“You really have to change your mindset to put your employees’ safety and the safety of others on the road first,” she said.

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