New legislation to ban the use of hand-held mobile phones while driving should have rung warning bells in every business in Britain.
Recent guidance from the Health and Safety Executive and the Department for Transport makes it clear that employers have a duty under health and safety law to manage the risks faced by their employees on the road.
And one of the biggest risks they face is when using mobile phones while at the wheel. Research shows that no matter what type of phone is used when driving, it will make motorists up to four times more likely to crash.
If a boss tells his or her employees they must use phones while driving for their job, then we argue that they are being asked to face unacceptable risks.
The new law may only cover hand-held phones, but that does not mean hands-free kits are safe. We believe the Government should have gone further and made the use of hands-free phones illegal as well. But there were concerns about the difficulty of enforcing such a law – even though police have already used phone records to prove motorists in accidents have been on the phone.
The evidence is that even when using hands-free phones, people become so engrossed in their conversations that they forget about the road. They tailgate, weave around and vary their speed, increasing the chances of crashing.
A telephone conversation is very different to chatting with a passenger. The passenger can see what is going on around them. They can be quiet if a difficult driving situation arises, or even warn of approaching dangers. The person on the phone cannot do that.
No matter how short they might want the conversation to be, it's always likely to go on longer than intended.
RoSPA wants employers to make it a disciplinary offence to use a phone when driving or for managers to insist that drivers use phones when at the wheel. If they are not persuaded by the moral argument, they should look at the business case.
Accidents cost businesses money, not just through repair and increased insurance bills, but through loss of reputation and the possibility that key members of staff will be injured or, in the worst cases, killed. The victim's skills will be lost to the organisation either temporarily or permanently and there are the added burdens of recruiting replacements.
The new law will include an offence of 'causing or permitting' a driver to use a hand-held phone while driving. This will apply to employers who will be guilty of an offence if they require or permit their staff who drive for work, to use a hand-held mobile phone while driving.
Employers would be unwise to respond to the ban on hand-held phones by simply supplying their staff with hands-free kits. Even if the use of these while driving does not contravene the specific ban on hand-held phones, employers could fall foul of health and safety laws if it is determined the use of the phone contributed to an accident.
Regulation 104 of the Construction and Use regulation, which requires drivers to be in proper control of their vehicles, also includes a 'cause or permit' clause which makes an employer who requires an employee to drive a vehicle which they cannot properly control liable for prosecution.
As well as a fine, the Government is planning to give the new law extra teeth so that using a hand-held phone will also result in three penalty points on the offender's licence. Those who ignore the safety case will increase the likelihood of facing a ban from the road. Some employers may find themselves sacking drivers because of bans or, if they do not go that far, having to find replacements or change working patterns for employees who are off the road.
RoSPA recommends that employers introduce a policy along these lines: You must not make or receive a call on a mobile phone (whether hand-held or hands-free) as the driver of a vehicle unless it is parked in a safe place. No line manager shall require an employee to receive a call on a mobile phone while driving. Contravention of these requirements will be regarded as a serious disciplinary matter.