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Distracted driving: Urging companies to crack down

(CNN)In 2004, David Teater of Spring Lake, Michigan, lost his 12-year-old son, the youngest of three boys, to a distracted driver. Afterward, he knew there were a few different ways he could get involved to raise awareness about this deadly problem.

He could travel to schools and educate children about the dangers of using a phone -- even a hands-free device -- while driving or plunge into legislative work full-time, since advocates believe there is a need for tougher distracted driving laws and penalties in every state.

But where he decided to focus his time was on the business community, encouraging companies to institute bans on using cell phones while driving. It could help save their employees' lives and raise awareness about an epidemic on the roads. Every day, more than eight people are killed and more than 1,000 are injured in crashes reported to involve distracted driving, which includes activities such as talking on a cell phone, texting and eating, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

David Teater began fighting distracted driving when his son was killed by a distracted driver.

Teater made the choice based on familiarity -- his 30-year business career has included serving as CEO of several private companies -- and on his calculation of ways to make the greatest change. His thinking is, if you encourage large companies with thousands of employees to ban any use of a cell phone or device while driving, they could take that message to their private lives and bring about wider change on the roads.

"If the employees buy into it ... then they start talking about it with their friends and peers, they get their family members to follow similar policies, and they take the practices home with them," said Teater, who is now a nationally recognized leader on the issue of distracted driving.

This is exactly what happened with seat belts, with the employer community leading the way by requiring employees use them while traveling in cars, said Teater, president and founder of FocusDriven LLC, a firm dedicated to reducing motor vehicle crashes that result from driver distraction.

"We had employers who looked at the evidence ... and they started putting policies in place saying, 'If you're going to drive on behalf of our company, you're going to wear a seat belt, or we're going to take disciplinary action if we find out you didn't,' and so people complained about it, but they didn't really have a choice, so they did it," he said.

As more employees got into the habit of wearing a seat belt, researchers were able to collect data to show how seat belts were saving lives in crashes, Teater said.

"And then since public opinion changed, then legislators started passing laws, and then we figured out how to enforce those laws with some meat in them, and where we're at today is where seat belts have saved tens of thousands of lives over the last several years. That's the main reason I focus on the employer community," he said.

The biggest obstacle: productivity concerns

"With the continued proliferation of social media and ever present urge for drivers to 'stay connected,' distracted driving continues to pose a major challenge for employers and in many cases represents a core element of their overall road safety program," said Joe McKillips, executive director of the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety. The employer-led organization is a partnership between the US government and the private sector focused on reducing road-related crashes, injuries and deaths.

ExxonMobil and Shell Oil were among the first companies to implement total bans more than a decade ago, mandating that employees are not allowed to use cell phones while driving on company business, even with a hands-free device.

Many other companies have followed suit, according to the nonprofit National Safety Council. In a survey of the Fortune 500 in 2010, the council found that 20% of the companies had policies that ban handheld and hands-free use.

Owens Corning, a Toledo-based company with about 16,000 employees in 26 countries, implemented its own policy in 2012.

Behind the scenes, as the company prepared for the rollout of the cell phone ban, the chief executive officer stopped using his cell phone at all times while driving.

"Our CEO actually went for 90 days adhering to what would become our policy for all employees -- no cell phone use, handheld or hands-free," said Matt Schroder, senior corporate communications and media relations leader for Owens Corning, in a 2014 interview with the National Safety Council (PDF). "That he could do that without it affecting his productivity became a key factor in messaging to employees during the implementation."

Productivity concerns are often cited as one of the top obstacles to implementing a total ban, according to the National Safety Council. For instance, if your sales force typically spends a bulk of the workday on the phone, talking to potential customers while driving between appointments, a cell phone ban could negatively impact the business.

And yet, in surveys with companies, there does not appear to be a significant negative impact on productivity cited.

In 2009, the National Safety Council surveyed 469 members that had implemented total cell phone bans. Only 1% reported that productivity decreased, according to the agency (PDF).

In the 2010 National Safety Council survey of Fortune 500 companies, of the ones that had cell phone bans in place, only 7% said productivity decreased, while 19% thought productivity had actually increased.

"Being a former CEO myself and having probably spoken to hundreds of CEOs over the years and hundreds of companies that have put these policies in place, maybe thousands, I've never heard of, not only not heard directly, I've never even heard of a company saying 'we put this policy in place, and it hurt sales commissions; it hurt productivity; it hurt customer service,' not even one comment on that anecdotally in the last 10 years, which I think is amazing," Teater said.

Another obstacle to getting more corporate policies in place appears to be resistance from top management, said Deborah Trombley, senior program manager of transportation initiatives for the National Safety Council.

"When we surveyed our members about why they didn't pass a total ban and they stopped at a texting only or handheld ban, one obstacle that was commonly mentioned was getting senior management buy-in. So a lot of times, that does really track the way back to productivity," Trombley said. "They have those concerns, and they just don't get beyond them."

Companies also often set policies to comply with federal regulations and state laws, said Trombley. Currently, there is no federal law and no law in any state banning hands-free use among adult drivers. It is illegal to use a handheld device while driving in 14 states and the District of Columbia.

"So employers that look to federal regulations and state law as benchmarks find it a challenge to prohibit hands-free use," she said.

'A no-brainer from a business standpoint'

Teater, who worked at the National Safety Council and led its distracted driving initiative from 2009 to 2015, travels across the country and gives between 30 and 40 presentations every year. He travels to individual companies and speaks to groups of employers who might be attending safety, insurance or risk conferences, or who are part of an association.

"I spoke to the New York Beer Wholesalers Association earlier this year," he said. "I love speaking to those groups, because every one of the people in the audience represents a different company with lots of employees so the message really spreads out."

A few of the companies Teater has appeared before have created a professional film of his presentation and distributed the video to their employees around the world.

David Teater is founder of a company focused on preventing distracted driving.

In the video, Teater takes employees through the science behind distracted driving, why it has become a huge deal on US roads and what companies have done to try to stop the problem.

One of the points he tries to hammer home is the negative impact of cognitive distraction: how our brain can't do two cognitively demanding tasks at the same time, and that includes talking on the phone while driving.

"It takes more cognitive resources to be engaged in a phone conversation than it does to be having the same exact conversation with somebody sitting across from you," he says. "If you are reading while driving, researchers say you are 3.4 times more likely to get in a crash than if you are not reading. Talking on the phone makes you four times more likely to get in a crash."

What Teater finds is that once companies hear the research, they typically move forward to ban distracted driving on the part of their employees.

"My experience has been when they understand the evidence and kind of just apply their own common sense to it, they very quickly come to that decision that this just isn't the best thing to do," he said.

"It makes a lot of common sense to them when they hear it. They say, 'You know, I would never dream of reading a book and talking on the phone at the same time. Why do I think I can drive a car and talk on the phone at the same time when it uses the same skills?' "

It really comes down to three points to convince any business, Teater said. The first is that the activity is dangerous and is getting more dangerous. The second is that there's a liability involved if companies don't do anything and one of their employees gets into an accident while doing company business on the phone. And third, if they put the policy in place, there is "some pretty compelling evidence on how it's not having a negative impact on a company," he said.

"When you look at those three points -- really risky thing, new liability and if we put a policy in place to stop it, it's not going to hurt us -- it's kind of a no-brainer from a business standpoint."

'He was my son, Joe Teater'

Teater closes his presentations by sharing stories about the lives lost due to distracted driving. He talks about a 13-year-old who was coming home on a school bus when a truck driver who was talking on his cell phone rammed into the back of the bus at 65 miles per hour. Margay Schee was the last child on the bus when it burst into flames.

He shares the story of a 16-year-old Cady Anne Reynolds, who was killed when another 16-year-old ran a red light while texting and rammed into her car.

Joe Teater, 12, was killed when a woman talking on a cell phone ran a red light at an intersection.

He talks about Jay and Jean Good, who were coming home from their daughter's college graduation and were killed when a tractor-trailer swerved to avoid a minivan driver who was talking on a cell phone.

And he closes by setting up a crash in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in January 2004. A person who was talking on a cell phone came speeding through the red light at an intersection. The driver sped past four cars and a school bus and didn't see the red light, said Teater. She never touched her brakes and hit a car at 48 miles per hour, he said.

It was a "perfect example of inattention blindness, looking, not seeing ... what happens when our minds are not fully engaged in the task of driving."

A 12-year-old boy was critically injured in the crash and died at the hospital six hours later, he said.

"He was my son, Joe Teater," David Teater tells the audience as he appears to be holding back tears.

"He was the youngest of three boys, and we miss him every single day," Teater said. "If you know anyone who has lost a child, it doesn't get any easier. You just try to figure out how to get through it, but ... he's not with us today because of a phone call. Because of a phone call."

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