August 5, 2013

Employer cell phone policy urged in wake of train crash

The National Safety Council, a nonprofit focusing on safety research and advocacy, released the following statement after the devastating Spanish train wreck on the importance of employer cell phone policies:

The National Safety Council was deeply disturbed to learn of the recent train wreck in Spain that killed 79 people. Reports indicate the train driver was using his cell phone at the time of the wreck. While crashes often involve several factors — the driver also was traveling at a very high rate of speed — 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.

We also know the train 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. 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.

Safety-minded organizations intent on going beyond federal safety rules and regulations are implementing policies prohibiting employee cell phone use while driving. 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 understands the importance of cell phone policies. The FRA 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 driver 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.

A spokeswoman for the Spanish railroad system Renfe, which operates the train that crashed last week, told reporters that the company does not have a policy regarding employee cell phone use on the job. It is the Council’s hope Renfe examines how to implement one. Employers should not wait for cell phone distracted driving to impact their organization before taking appropriate actions.

Today, the Council estimates nearly 6 million people in the U.S. are covered by employer policies that prohibit the use of all cell phones while conducting any kind of company business, or while using a company vehicle or phone. This leadership from the business community is not unusual. Many companies had drunk driving policies long before states adopted the current drunk driving laws. Many companies today have policies and rules in their workplaces that exceed federal or state occupational safety and health laws. 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.

The Council hopes this wreck serves as a catalyst for immediate and sustained action. Everyone deserves to be protected en route to their destination. Cell phone policies help do just that.   


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  • Kevin O'Connor[ August 6th, 2013 @ 9:57am ]

    I find it a bit disconcerning that an industry magazine doesn't know the difference between a conductor and a driver (or engineer as they are known in the US). The driver was the one opearting the train and on his cell phone, not the conductor.

  • James Golightly[ August 6th, 2013 @ 3:38pm ]

    Numerous sources, including this one, indicate that the Train Conductor was responsible for the crash. In North America, the Train Conductor is the company's business agent on the train, the person in charge of it. He may or may not be a qualified engineer, but as a Conductor, he is not the person operating the train, under normal operating conditions. In North America, the individual operating the train is commonly known as the Engineer, and more formally known as the Engineman, or in some cases, the Motorman. In other parts of the world, the term Train Driver is common. Endless stories about the Conductor going too fast, the Conductor being on the phone, the Conductor applying the brakes, or failing to do so, the Conductor being distracted, serve only to confuse the issue to the North American reader. It should be made clear that if the Conductor was actually operating the engine, this differs from familiar North American practice. One must ask, where was the Engineer, and what was he doing, while the Conductor was in the engine running the train. If, as seems to be the case, the Engineer/Train Driver, was in fact running the train, this should be so stated by your sources. The best way to write knowledgeably about one's topic is to research it a bit, and find out what's actually going on. Writing about this tragedy, which captured the attention of the world, without the attention such an event deserves, trivializes the event, and portrays your publication, which specializes in transportation issues, as less than knowledgeable on its own chosen field. There've been lots of shortcomings about the reportage on this event; this one just caught my eye at the moment, because of the excessive repetition of the error.

  • Colum Flaherty[ August 6th, 2013 @ 5:58pm ]

    Guess what I can chew gum and drive at the same time. The warning system should have automatically slowed the clown down. Maybe we should look at the system or the lack of one.

  • Joseph Hazinski[ August 7th, 2013 @ 6:17pm ]

    While not clear I get the impression that the operator was engaged in company business on the cell phone at the time of the incident. We have no idea of what communication systems where available. If the cell phone is the primary means of communication then such rules, laws and regulations are out of place. I too was upset by the general media's lack of understanding of how railroads and public transit works and how tools (cellphones in this case)can be used and misused. Makes you wonder how much other news they get screwed up and how much the use and misuse their cellphones.

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