Going down the hands-free road

By Jeffrey R. Smith (jeffrey.r.smith@thomsonreuters.com)

On Oct. 26, Ontario drivers were asked to hang up their phones while driving. New legislation outlawed what had become an everyday activity for many people: using handheld electronic devices while driving. The devices banned include cellphones, personal music players like iPods and even global positioning devices (GPS), unless they are attached to the vehicle and don’t require the driver to hold them in their hands.

The ban has significance for employers in a couple of ways. Employees who drive as part of their job, whether in a company vehicle or their own, often have to communicate with the office or customers while on the road. While there are some exemptions to the ban (commercial transportation tracking systems, for example, are exempt), employees will now have to either pull over or get a hands-free device if they need to check in at work.

It’s also become pretty common, with the prevalence of BlackBerrys and other such devices for work purposes, for employees to check email and perform other work-related tasks when they’re away from work, including while behind the wheel. If employees are caught operating these devices while driving, they’re now breaking the law, and if it’s work-related, the employer could potentially get pulled into the mess as well.

Employers can protect themselves from liability through policies reflecting the prohibition and perhaps, where employees are supplied with devices, making sure they have wireless options. However, old habits can die hard, as evidenced by Ontario’s three-month grace period before it actually starts fining people.

While many will obey the new law, others may disagree with it, not take it seriously, or just plain forget. If this is the case, can the employer still be implicated in the employee’s actions? If an employee is talking or texting on his BlackBerry with the office and gets in an accident or pulled over, who’s at fault? What if the employer has a policy and has instructed the employee to follow the law, but isn’t aware the employee isn’t complying?

Employers across Canada need to take notice, because it isn’t just Ontario drivers who are under the scope.  Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Quebec all have similar legislation already in effect and Manitoba’s will come into effect next year. British Columbia and Alberta are also considering bills along the same lines.

What do you think of cellphone bans and employer liability? Join the conversation by adding a comment.

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