Fleet Safety

More Focus on the Road

More employers are taking formal steps toward addressing the workplace cost of distracted driving.
By: | March 23, 2017 • 7 min read

Distracted driving, particularly due to texting or other cell phone usage, is increasingly resulting in accidents, as well as workers’ compensation claims for employee drivers.

While data is scant on whether distracted driving specifically has resulted in higher workers’ comp claims, many insurers can infer the rise by reviewing their claims involving motor vehicle accidents and government statistics on distracted driving.

For example, the percentage of AF Group’s claims involving motor vehicle accidents rose from roughly 2 percent in 2009, to nearly 3.5 percent at year-end 2016, said Bob Lapinski, a spokesperson for the Lansing, Mich.-based holding company for Accident Fund Insurance Co. and three other workers’ comp insurers. During that same period, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration documented a spike in distracted driving accidents, Lapinski said.

That trend alone should push employers to institute policies to minimize distracted driving among their workforce, said Dave Brandolino, loss control manager at Chicago-based Third Coast Underwriters, another division of AF Group. Brandolino is based in Nashville.

“It all starts with the hiring process,” he said.

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Employers should check candidates’ motor vehicle driving records to see if there any incidents due to distracted driving, as well as CSA scores assembled by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which measure compliance, safety and accountability, Brandolino said.

It’s also import to implement best practice hiring guidelines, such as establishing minimum age requirements and road experience.

Dave Brandolino, loss control manager, Third Coast Underwriters

Employers should also establish a strong accountability program for drivers using telematics — electronic devices installed in vehicles that transmit data about how the driver is operating the vehicle, such as whether the driver is speeding, hard breaking, rolling or swaying the vehicle, he said. Cab cameras can also be activated by such events.

“We encourage employers to establish a tracking and monitoring system of those data points to develop forward-looking metrics,” Brandolino said. “This is also an important tool to hold drivers accountable by coaching and training, rewarding and disciplining them based on defined standards and individual performance.”

There are also devices on the market that block cell phones from making phone calls and answering emails and texts if the driver is moving, he said.

“We encourage the use of technologies that combat distracted driving because you just can’t put a price on a life,” Brandolino said.

Formalize a Policy

Chris Hayes, second vice president of transportation risk control at Travelers in Hartford, Conn., cited several statistics by the National Safety Council: the average work-related motor vehicle injury claim costs $72,540, which is twice as much as other work-related injuries. Moreover, 54 percent of drivers said work would motivate them to do a distracting activity while driving — such as making a phone call, searching for a location using a GPS system, or reviewing and sending emails.

According to the Travelers’ 2016 Business Risk Index, 65 percent of the insurer’s business clients have employees that use their personal vehicles for business activities.

“So it’s important for organizations to include that in their vehicle safety plan, because they still face liability risk and employee safety risk even if employees are driving their personal vehicles on behalf of the company,” Hayes said.

Organizations should put together formal policies around not using cell phones while driving, having all drivers sign off on the policy, and keeping documentation of that, he said. These policies should be regularly communicated to help reinforce the message that distracted driving is a risk that should be avoided.

“Organizations should also promote that culture to other employees in the office, to let them know that if they contact employees in the field, [they should] make sure those employees are not driving when they take the call or answer a text or email,” Hayes said. “Employees who are driving should know that they don’t have to immediately respond to people in the office trying to contact them, but rather they can wait until they are stopped in a safe place to respond.”

One way to avoid the risk of distraction from the phone is to keep it in the glove compartment or on the passenger seat out of reach, so they can focus on driving instead, he said.

“If a person is driving 55 miles per hour and takes their eyes off the road for five seconds, they will have traveled the length of a football field without watching carefully or safely,” — Randy Thornton, president, risk control, York Risk Services Group, Lafayette, La.

Even before cell phones were prevalent, there was distracted driving due to fatigue, eating while driving, fiddling around with the radio, or reaching behind to grab something in the back seat, among other things, said Edward Canavan, vice president, workers’ compensation practice & compliance at Memphis-based Sedgwick. Canavan is based in Santa Ana, Calif.

“Now with cell phones, distracted driving is a huge problem – there’s around a half million people a year that are injured as a result of distracted driving, which also impacts workers’ comp claims,” Canavan said.

The no-fault system within workers’ comp adds another layer of complexity to a claim, he said. Most likely the claims will have to be paid, but in some jurisdictions, the benefits can be altered due to negligence on the part of the injured worker.

“But the negligence has to have met a certain threshold and this has not been tested because the criteria is so high,” Canavan said. “An example would be in California, where the act causing the injury would need to meet the threshold of being serious and willful misconduct. This could be a solo accident and not necessarily involve another person.”

Preventive Strategies

From a loss prevention and risk management standpoint, there is a lot of technology that can help to discourage texting while driving, he said. For example, there’s a mobile app that will give a driver the fastest route based on road conditions, traffic and construction, but it detects motion and asks people if they are the driver or the passenger.

Chris Hayes, second vice president of transportation risk control, Travelers

“However a person could just lie, so an even better type of technology would be actual devices installed in cars that prevent cell phone use while driving,” Canavan said. “Within several years, these types of devices might be required by the National Transportation Safety Board and standard in all cars.”

Debra Levy, senior vice president, quality management and WC practice leader at York Risk Services Group in Atlanta, speculated on why there is no hard data on workers’ comp claims for distracted driving: very few employees are willing to admit they were using their phone either talking or texting at the time of an accident, especially if there is a company policy against it.

“Unless an employer is going to investigate phone and text usage after every motor vehicle accident occurrence, this data will not be captured,” Levy said.

To lessen accidents due to distracted driving, employers must have a strong distracted driving policy that includes random checks on both company and personal phones during expected travel times, she said. Once an employer commits to a distracted driving policy, they must follow the policy diligently to get the desired effect on driver behavior. They must also follow through on disciplining employees who violate the policy.

“If employers don’t follow through on an implemented distracted driving program, they could find themselves in a difficult liability situation if the accident is caused due to an employee violating the distracted driving policy,” Levy said.

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Anything that can distract a person can be distracted driving, including spilling coffee or dropping something — “anything that takes your eyes off the road,” said Randy Thornton, president, risk control at York Risk Services Group in Lafayette, La.

“There’s a really powerful factoid: If a person is driving 55 miles per hour and takes their eyes off the road for five seconds, they will have traveled the length of a football field without watching carefully or safely,” Thornton said.

Texting while driving is illegal in most states, and the federal Department of Transportation also has been successful in banning texting and the use of cell phones while driving among commercial drivers, he said. The government also has good public awareness campaigns, including an informative website, distraction.gov, in which employers can download forms to use in obtaining a pledge to not engage in distracting activities while driving.

York also recommends that employers regularly educate their drivers, and not underestimate the fact that new drivers and experienced drivers alike need to be educated and reminded of the dangers of distracted driving.

“You’ve got to monitor it, you’ve got to measure it, you’ve got to train around it. It’s a circular process by nature,” York said. “There is always employee turnover, and before you know it, you have 10 new drivers. It’s important that everyone is operating under the same set of dynamics.”

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a freelance writer based in California. She has more than two decades of journalism experience and expertise in financial writing. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Robotics Risk

Rise of the Cobots

Collaborative robots, known as cobots, are rapidly expanding in the workforce due to their versatility. But they bring with them liability concerns.
By: | May 2, 2017 • 5 min read

When the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto hired mobile collaborative robots to bolster security patrols, the goal was to improve costs and safety.

Once the autonomous robotic guards took up their beats — bedecked with alarms, motion sensors, live video streaming and forensics capabilities — no one imagined what would happen next.

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For some reason,  a cobots’ sensors didn’t pick up the movement of a toddler on the sidewalk who was trying to play with the 5-foot-tall, egg-shaped figure.

The 300-pound robot was programmed to stop for shoppers, but it knocked down the child and then ran over his feet while his parents helplessly watched.

Engaged to help, this cobot instead did harm, yet the use of cobots is growing rapidly.

Cobots are the fastest growing segment of the robotics industry, which is projected to hit $135.4 billion in 2019, according to tech research firm IDC.

“Robots are embedding themselves more and more into our lives every day,” said Morgan Kyte, a senior vice president at Marsh.

“Collaborative robots have taken the robotics industry by storm over the past several years,” said Bob Doyle, director of communications at the Robotic Industries Association (RIA).

When traditional robots joined the U.S. workforce in the 1960s, they were often assigned one specific task and put to work safely away from humans in a fenced area.

Today, they are rapidly being deployed in the automotive, plastics, electronics assembly, machine tooling and health care industries due to their ability to function in tandem with human co-workers.

More than 24,000 robots valued at $1.3 billion were ordered from North American companies last year, according to the RIA.

Cobots Rapidly Gain Popularity

Cobots are cheaper, more versatile and lighter, and often have a faster return on investment compared to traditional robots. Some cobots even employ artificial intelligence (AI) so they can adapt to their environment, learn new tasks and improve on their skills.

Bob Doyle, director of communications, Robotic Industry Association

Their software is simple to program, so companies don’t need a computer programmer, called a robotic integrator, to come on site to tweak duties. Most employees can learn how to program them.

While the introduction of cobots into the workplace can bring great productivity gains, it also introduces risk mitigation challenges.

“Where does the problem lie when accidents happen and which insurance covers it?” asked attorney Garry Mathiason, co-chair of the robotics, AI and automation industry group at the law firm Littler Mendelson PC in San Francisco.

“Cobots are still machines and things can go awry in many ways,” Marsh’s Kyte said.

“The robot can fail. A subcomponent can fail. It can draw the wrong conclusions.”

If something goes amiss, exposure may fall to many different parties:  the manufacturer of the cobot, the software developer and/or the purchaser of the cobot, to name a few.

Is it a product defect? Was it an issue in the base code or in the design? Was something done in the cobot’s training? Was it user error?

“Cobots are still machines and things can go awry in many ways.” — Morgan Kyte, senior vice president, Marsh

Is it a workers’ compensation case or a liability issue?

“If you get injured in the workplace, there’s no debate as to liability,” Mathiason said.

But if the employee attributes the injury to a poorly designed or programmed machine and sues the manufacturer of the equipment, that’s not limited by workers’ comp, he added.

Garry Mathiason, co-chair, robotics, AI and automation industry group, Littler Mendelson PC

In the case of a worker killed by a cobot in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2015, the worker’s spouse filed suit against five of the companies responsible for manufacturing the machine.

“It’s going to be unique each time,” Kyte said.

“The issue that keeps me awake at night is that people are so impressed with what a cobot can do, and so they ask it to do a task that it wasn’t meant to perform,” Mathiason said.

Privacy is another consideration.

If the cobot records what is happening around it, takes pictures of its environment and the people in it, an employee or customer might claim a privacy violation.

A public sign disclosing the cobot’s ability to record video or take pictures may be a simple solution. And yet, it is often overlooked, Mathiason said.

Growing Pains in the Industry

There are going to be growing pains as the industry blossoms in advance of any legal and regulatory systems, Mathiason said.

He suggests companies take several mitigation steps before introducing cobots to the workplace.

First, conduct a safety audit that specifically covers robotics. Make sure to properly investigate the use of the technology and consider all options. Run a pilot program to test it out.

Most importantly, he said, assign someone in the organization to get up to speed on the technology and then continuously follow it for updates and new uses.

The Robotics Industry Association has been working with the government to set up safety standards. One employee can join a cobot member association to receive the latest information on regulations.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion about this technology and people see so many things that could go wrong,” Mathiason said.

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“But if you handle it properly with the safety audit, the robotics audit, and pay attention to what the standards are, it’s going to be the opposite; there will be fewer problems.

“And you might even see in your experience rating that you are going to [get] a better price to the policy,” he added.

Without forethought, coverage may slip through the cracks. General liability, E&O, business interruption, personal injury, cyber and privacy claims can all be involved.

AIG’s Lexington Insurance introduced an insurance product in 2015 to address the gray areas cobots and robots create. The coverage brings together general and products liability, robotics errors and omissions, and risk management services, all three of which are tailored for the robotics industry. Minimum premium is $25,000.

Insurers are using lessons learned from the creation of cyber liability policies and are applying it to robotics coverage, Kyte said.

“The robotics industry has been very safe for the last 30 years,” RIA’s Doyle said. “It really does have a good track record and we want that to continue.” &

Juliann Walsh is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]