Texting while driving? Blame the boss

The state trooper just pulled you over on the interstate because you're on your cell phone and texting while driving. In most states, that's illegal. You probably even passed electronic billboards, some of them insulting, telling you not to text and drive. 

So what do you tell the officer when you hand over your license and registration? Here's a good excuse, and in many instances it's true: The boss made me do it.

recent survey of nearly 2,100 adults -- more than half of whom were employees who drive to work -- was conducted by Travelers Insurance (TRV) and Harris Poll. It found this is a major factor in what distracts drivers on their way to work. Today's high-intensity workplace seeps into an employee's time behind the wheel, so much so that 75 percent of employees who drive also use their personal vehicles for work-related purposes.

So it comes as no surprise that while driving, many of these employees have their cell phone pressed against their ear to initiate or answer "work-related communications." About 38 percent make or answer phone calls for work, 17 percent read or send texts and 10 percent actually email.

But why they do it is another story. Approximately 17 percent fear their boss if they don't answer, while 27 percent say the boss either calls or texts even though he or she knows they're driving. The pressure is subtler for others. For example, 38 percent feel they should always be available, and 15 percent are simply "not able to mentally shut off from work."

This probably sounds bizarre, if not downright dangerous, but it equates with other recent surveys of America's overstressed -- and perhaps underappreciated -- workers. The Pew Research Center and American Life Project found that 44 percent of the more than 2,254 adults they surveyed slept with their cell phone next to their bed, and two thirds said they experienced "phantom ringing." That is, they suddenly awake having imagined hearing their phone ring or vibrate, which could indicate it was actually in their bed.

If work and an ever-present boss can inhabit the bedroom, it's no surprise that he or she can also rule the road. "Managers routinely overload their subordinates, contact them outside of business hours and make last-minute requests for additional work," said Erin Reid and Lakshmi Ramarajan in an article entitled, "Managing the High-Intensity Workplace," in Harvard Business Review. 

"To satisfy those demands, employees arrive early, stay late, pull all-nighters, work weekends and remain tied to their electronic devices 24/7," they wrote. "And those who are unable -- or unwilling -- to respond are usually penalized."

Sometimes these "work martyrs," as Project Time Off calls them, even die an early death. Distracted driving is responsible for nine fatalities and more than a thousand injuries on roadways each day, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Many of them can be directly linked to work.

Shell Oil (RDS.A) and Cargill have both implemented workplace policies to curb cell phone calling and texting while driving. Shell has already seen a significant decline in fatalities. After reporting nine road deaths in 2007 and 29 in 2008, the energy company clamped down in 2009 and had zero highway fatalities in 2015.

What about "hands-free" calling and answering? Does it remove the danger while driving? Nearly 60 percent of those who use their cell phone for work say they have access to a hands-free device and use it most of the time. But hands-free driving is hardly safe driving, particularly when the call becomes stressful and either party starts shouting. You're still riding "a desk at 65 miles an hour," said a Cargill manager.

Just about every age group in the work force is guilty of doing work-related communications while driving, but younger employees tend to be worse. More than half of those aged 18 to 44 admit to it, perhaps because they see themselves as being more skilled at multitasking, more job-focused or more fearful of losing their positions. For those aged 55 to 64, the percentage drops to 33 percent, according to the Travelers Insurance poll.

A recent opinion piece showed that workers were becoming "nerd commandos," or extreme workaholics, rising at 6 a.m., working into the evening, falling into bed and doing it all over again the next day.

Americans have always taken shorter vacations than their European counterparts, but it appears they're now taking even less time off, in some cases voluntarily -- around 17 days of annual vacation down from the 20 days they took before 2000. In essence, they're leaving $66 billion of vacation time, an average of $600 per employee, behind to work harder and longer, including time spent in their own car.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.