Shortly after 2:30p.m. Tuesday, March 22, 2011, Joshua Morris, 32, lost control of a cargo van owned by his employer Dara Toy Company, of Macedonia, Ohio. The van swerved out of the northbound lanes of I-71 in Ohio, across the center median and all three lanes of southbound traffic before it pummeled 19-year-old Rachael Carlina Woodruff’s car, which was exiting a rest area.

Woodruff later died from her injuries, prompting the teen’s family to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Morris’ employer, alleging that the company should have recognized Morris’ “recklessness, dangerous driving propensities,” and therefore, was negligent with entrusting Morris to operate the vehicle.

According to investigators, Morris became distracted by his cell phone, which caused him to lose control of the van. Morris was also charged with driving under the influence when toxicology results determined that he had marijuana in his system at the time.

While Morris is the party at fault in this accident, he represents an employer that will pay a hefty price in legal fees, higher insurance expenses, and potential loss of business from bad press. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s “Guidelines for Employers to Reduce Motor Vehicle Crashes,” the average cost to an employer for an on-the-job vehicle crash is $16,500. If the accident results in an injury, that cost bumps up to $74,000.  If there’s a fatality, expect a financial hit of $500,000 or more.

That’s the risk every field service organization assumes with employees that drive on company business. So what can companies do to reduce their exposure, and more importantly, keep drivers from getting into crashes in the first place?

It all starts with identifying and correcting “at-risk” drivers before they cause irreparable damage to a company’s brand, bottom line, and another human being.

Distracted Drivers

Phil Moser, vice president of Advanced Driver Training Services (ADTS) in Trooper, Penn. urges organizations to implement a policy that bans all cell phone use while driving, including hands-free devices. He cites a University of Utah study, which concludes that talking on a cell phone while operating a vehicle is equivalent to driving intoxicated at a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent, the minimum level that defines illegal drunk driving in most states.

Aren’t hands-free calls safer?

Not according to a Texas jury for a recent distracted driving lawsuit against Coca-Cola, which awarded $22 million to a woman injured by a crash caused by a Coca-Cola marketing employee talking on her cell-phone, using a hands-free device, in compliance with company policy.

Said the lead attorney for the plaintiff, as quoted in the Detroit Legal News: “[The Coca-Cola employee] was so involved in that conversation, she had no clue she was turning against the light. The sad thing is that Coca-Cola driver will go to her grave thinking that she had that green turn arrow, even when her own lawyers admit she didn’t.”

But, what’s the difference between talking on hands-free versus talking with someone in the car with you? Isn’t that the same thing?

“The difference is that when you have someone with you in the car, at least you have another set of eyes,” said Moser. “It takes more of your cognitive focus to speak with someone on the phone than it does to speak with someone in the car.”

Moser’s advice to companies: “Make it real simple. Stay off the phone. Train employees to build time into their schedules to handle calls … when they’re not driving.”

Aggressive Drivers

Following too closely, harsh braking, abrupt acceleration, speeding, weaving through traffic – these aggressive driving behaviors put your employee’s safety and company at risk, if nothing is done to stop it.

“I’ve overheard managers say, ‘I won’t ride with that person. Or, I’ll only follow them or I’ll drive. But I won’t get into the vehicle with them.’ What should that tell you?” said Moser. “If your employees are operating company vehicles in a way that makes you afraid to ride with them, you need to nip that in the bud right away and put that driver on notice. There’s too much at stake.”

Inexperienced Drivers

Moser recommends that companies require employees to receive training specific to the vehicles they’ll drive on-the-job. “Driving a loaded cargo van is not the same as driving a sedan,” said Moser. “You have to make sure you approach a corner with the right speed because a loaded van will not corner like a sedan. It is not a performance vehicle. Once that weight starts shifting, it’s hard to control.”

The blind spots on vans are also greater with vans, said Moser, which increases risk of crashes during lane changes or backing up in parking lots. “The natural tendency is to do a quick glance over your shoulder [during a lane change in a cargo van]. But when you glance over your shoulder, there’s a wall there. You can’t see. So, you’re very dependent upon your mirrors, having to make sure they’re set properly and that you’re scanning your mirrors every 5-7 seconds while driving.”

The Bottom Line

Employees who drive on company business are an extension of the company – at least, that’s how the courts see it. Therefore, preserve your firm’s profits and good name by allowing only responsible and competent drivers to get behind the wheel.

More: Some Go the Extra Mile (or 3,000) for Elite Field Service.

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ABOUT Sean Lyden

Avatar photoSean is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, a content strategy and editorial consulting firm, and also serves as editor for Utility Fleet Professional magazine. A nationally recognized feature writer on sales, marketing, technology and transportation topics, Sean is also a contributing author to "The Ultimate Small Business Marketing Guide” and “The Great Big Book of Business Lists,” both books published by Entrepreneur Press.