Safety group calls for cell phone driving code

October 31, 2008|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

At KCI Technologies, a large engineering firm in Hunt Valley, employees know one of the rules is not to talk on a cell phone while driving a company vehicle. Not even if it's the boss calling. Pull over at a safe place and take the call.

The 1,100-employee company is one of an apparently small number of businesses outside the core transportation industries that have adopted stringent employee codes requiring safe driving practices while using company vehicles - a practice that a new safety advocacy group is calling upon other Maryland employers to adopt.

The Maryland Highway Safety Foundation said it hopes to recruit 100 businesses with a cumulative 100,000 employees to adopt policies covering such matters as cell phone use, texting while behind the wheel, driving while intoxicated and other traffic offenses. Foundation co-chairman David Nevins announced the effort at a morning meeting that drew some of the state's top political leaders, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

After the meeting, O'Malley said his administration would become one of the employers to adopt such rules for users of state-owned vehicles. "Stay tuned. It's in the offing," he said.

The governor did not give details but indicated that the policy would at a minimum ban texting while driving a state-owned vehicle - a practice he called as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. O'Malley said he believes he has the power to adopt such a code for state workers by executive order.

Neither cell phone use nor texting while driving is explicitly banned under Maryland law, even though either could possibly be covered under the state's negligent driving statute. The General Assembly has so far resisted passing legislation addressing cell phones or texting except in the case of novice drivers.

The foundation, organized this year by Maryland business leaders, is urging employers to adopt such bans on their own - with the hope that behaviors learned on the job will carry over to drivers' personal lives. Foundation officials announced the challenge as the foundation made its Annapolis debut on a podium around which were scattered 615 pairs of shoes - representing the number of people killed on Maryland roads last year.

According to founder Fred Mirmiran, president of Sparks-based Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson, the group's goal is to cut the state's highway death toll in half within five years.

The foundation has considerable support. The board includes co-chairman Woody Collins, president of M&T Bank Mid-Atlantic Division, and former state Transportation Secretary William Hellman. Its honorary chair is O'Malley's wife, District Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley.

Terry Neimeyer, chief executive of KCI and a member of the foundation board, told the gathering that his company adopted its driving code to protect its employees. But he said the program has had the additional benefit of saving money on insurance.

Neimeyer said that in 2005, his company had a wreck in which an employee was at fault once every 108,000 miles. By 2007, after the adoption of tough new policies backed by sanctions, crashes were down to once every 180,000 miles. He said he's now aiming to get that down to one in 250,000 miles - a big saving for a company that self-insures.

"Businesses should do this. There's a reason to do this. You'll save lives and you'll save money. It's a coincidental good," he said.

KCI's program has included a cell phone ban since February because the company determined that 40 percent of its at-fault crashes involved distracted driving and that in half those cases the distraction was a wireless call. Neimeyer said he rejected the argument that employees were getting work done while driving.

"I'd rather you not do business when you drive," he said.

The company's program also involves checks of the driving record of all new hires as well as yearly checks of the records of existing employees.

"Ninety percent of them are clean. It's the 10 percent who aren't clean that are a worry," he said. If the company's chief safety officer determines that an employee represents a high risk, the worker can be denied use of a company vehicle.

Neimeyer said the policy paid off recently when it acquired an Ohio firm and found that one of its 30 employees was driving on a suspended license.

KCI also requires each of its staff members to complete a defensive driving course - and cancels workers' gas credit cards if they don't pass a test on defensive driving. One of KCI's toughest sanctions is that it charges workers who are at fault in a crash in a company car half the cost of the $1,000 deductible the firm pays. Neimeyer described the reaction to the $500 co-payment as "pained." But he's not worried that employees would leave the company over objections to the policy.

"If they're a high risk, maybe I want them working for my competitors," he said.

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