Since its introduction, motor vehicle telematics has quickly gained broad popularity among fleet owners and managers. The technology delivers a substantial return on investment – GPS navigation and tracking, engine and fuel monitoring, safety analytics and more enable the professionals who manage vehicle fleets to reduce their operating costs while improving productivity.
But a business tool this powerful and this pervasive has inevitably evoked questions about the legal liabilities related to its use.
One example is the problem with having any display or messaging technology inside a vehicle. Over the past several years a number of criminal trials have convicted defendants of “distracted driving,” a lack of attention to the road caused by their focus on smart phones and other devices. As this phenomenon increased, in 2009 the magazine Work Truck warned fleet owners that they might be viewed as partly responsible in an accident if their employees are distracted by telematics while behind the wheel. “Drivers may claim they felt pressured by their managers to use electronics to the detriment of safety. In an accident involving a driver using telematics technology, pedestrians and other drivers have another possible claim as part of any potential lawsuit.”
Faced with exposure to civil or criminal legal action, or both, fleet owners and managers are well advised to lessen that risk – as well as decreasing the risk of these accidents happening in the first place. They can take positive steps in that direction by making sure that drivers receive thorough instruction in when not to operate telematics.
That includes telling drivers when it is unsafe to log on or off or change duty status, as well as when not to read or send text messages. A few seconds of driver inattention is all it takes to transform a routine trip into an unfortunate experience.
More awareness, more responsibility
Another area of increased owner/manager liability created by telematics is the insight this technology provides into driver behavior.
Many commercial drivers report that they were initially attracted to their occupation because being on the road allows a driver to act in much the same way as a free agent. The load must be delivered on time, inspections carried out and hours of service observed, but the small details of the workday were not the fleet manager’s concern.
In some respects, telematics has upended this state of affairs. Fleet managers track not only the employee’s whereabouts but, on a minute-by-minute basis, how the driver is doing the job: dynamic events such as speeding, hard braking, cornering and other performance parameters. This information allows for management that is more efficient and can increase productivity, but if the vehicle is involved in an accident blamed on driver error, that could conceivably place the owner or manager under greater legal obligation.
An attorney who frequently represents insurance companies explained the matter this way: “If you can monitor someone driving erratically . . . a court may say you reviewed the data and chose to do nothing or did you did something ineffective.”
If the possession of telematics data could place a greater burden on the employer when a driver is at fault, again, this is a compelling reason to make sure that drivers receive training that clearly specifies the limits of driver behavior, and includes penalties for poor driving as a violation of company policy.
There are some bright spots when considering telematics and litigation — circumstances in which the technology is an owner’s shield against a negative legal outcome. These devices may afford increased protection in court when there are differences in witness testimony between a plaintiff and a defendant.
This is an area in which telematics data can help safeguard a fleet against grievous loss. Eyewitness reports in court are extremely persuasive, even compelling. However, they’re frequently wrong. Scientific American noted that “Since the 1990s, when DNA testing was first introduced . . . 73 percent of the 239 convictions overturned through DNA testing were based on eyewitness testimony. One third of these overturned cases rested on the testimony of two or more mistaken eyewitnesses.”
Telematics data could be called an electronic analog to a DNA test. It is completely objective, does not rely on memory, and isn’t influenced by opinion or past experiences. As one legal firm noted, telematics “is often more reliable than subjective witness accounts especially when it comes to estimating speed, distance traveled and other key evidence used in reconstructing crash events on in accounting for the whereabouts or behavior of an operator.”
In the aftermath of an accident, this solid, factual – and indisputable – record may lead to a swift resolution in the fleet owner’s favor.
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