An online survey conducted last year by the Advertising Council of Rochester and its partners found Rochester to have more distracted drivers than the national average.
In the past month alone, 42 percent of Rochester drivers ages 18 to 44 have texted or emailed while behind the wheel, compared with 36 percent of U.S. drivers ages 18 to 39.
The organization decided to begin a campaign against distracted driving in 2011 after hearing about the problem and seeing limited community awareness of it. The survey was done from January to April 2012.
After a campaign in 27 school districts, the council now has shifted its focus to businesses. With the data collected, the Rochester Business Alliance Inc. joined the campaign. Once businesses are informed, the next target will be faith communities.
The campaign is not aimed at the person who drives distracted; instead the focus is on people in contact with the driver, asking them to think before they engage in any conversation with someone they know is behind the wheel.
Each year the nation has nearly 636,000 cellphone-related accidents that cause 2,600 deaths. Texting while driving is three times as dangerous as driving drunk, according to a website of the Ad Council of Rochester, URthatdistracting.org.
"There’s no evidence that I’ve seen or no reason that I’ve seen for why it’s a little bit worse in Rochester," said Todd Butler, president and CEO of the Advertising Council of Rochester. "Research indicated that the higher level your education was, the higher level your income was, the less likely you were to think that it was a problem for you personally."
Butler speculates that the expectations of employers to be constantly connected to employees could contribute to Rochester’s high rate of distracted driving, especially because of the number of white-collar jobs here.
For businesses, distracted driving could put a company’s future at risk, local officials say.
"Quite frankly, it’s a problem that has the potential to impact them significantly," said Sandra Parker, president and CEO of the Rochester Business Alliance Inc. "Companies want to keep their employees safe, (and) this is one way of doing it-as well as protecting the company itself against unnecessary lawsuits."
From a business perspective, there is much at stake. Even with laws on the books, simple compliance by employee drivers is not enough to protect a business from lawsuits or even bankruptcy.
New York bans the use of handheld devices and texting. However, 25 percent of Rochester-area drivers, across all age groups, admit to texting while driving, compared with 18 percent of the country as a whole.
Since 2007, the number of criminal cases involving distracted driving has increased significantly across the country, the report states.
Employers are potentially liable when an employee is traveling on a business trip or calling the office, or if they simply provide the mobile device and expect their employees to be accessible at all times.
Some cases in which employees were legally using hands-free devices have resulted in multimillion-dollar verdicts against their employers, according to Aegis Mobility Inc.
Applications for smartphones can help employers prevent their employees from driving while using a phone. Texecution and OneProtext disable texting ability when a car is traveling faster than 10 mph. AT&T Drive Mode and SafeCell give an automated response to incoming text messages, much like an out-of-office email.
For Ray Isaac, CEO and president of Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning Inc., pledging to join the campaign was a no-brainer.
"If you figure we probably log over 1,600 miles a day between all of our vehicles," Isaac said, "every single 10 yards of every single mile of every single day, you know that is the most risky thing we do."
With 160 trucks on the road, mostly on residential streets, he said, the company regards distracted driving as a major concern. But combating the problem is simple.
"Two words: Pull over," Isaac said. "Pull over and address it. There’s going to be some business costs, but you know what? You probably have to incur a bunch of expense to overcome a $21 million lawsuit. It scares the living hell out of me, having something like that happen."
One drawback for businesses could be reducing employees’ accessibility while they travel. In a constantly connected business world, enforcing a distracted driving policy could depend on the company’s focus.
"If the leadership of the company comes out and says, ‘We have got religion on distracted driving, and we no longer want you to use your phone when it is unsafe to do so,’ period, … I think that’s where companies can first and foremost protect their employees, protect their community but also protect the business," Butler said.
Businesses should reconsider, he said, if their expectation has been that no matter what employees are doing, they must answer their phones.
"I think that they’ll have to weigh that. I know that business owners are people with families and they care about the people that work for them," he said.
The Ad Council of Rochester partnered with Crux Research Inc., Frontier Communications Corp., the Democrat and Chronicle Media Group and Entercom Marketing Results Group to study distracted driving.
10/11/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].