Aiden Quinn is 24 years old. He drives a trolley for the Mass Bay Transit Authority (MBTA or T) in Boston. He has a mediocre driving record, with three speeding violations (while operating a motor vehicle). Last week he was driving a trolley underground between Park Street and Government Center. He was texting his girlfriend, when he ran a red light and crashed into another trolley stopped in front of him. Over 40 people were injured, including Quinn. The T was shut down for hours.
Quinn has been fired - no surprise - and the T has now issued a policy prohibiting drivers from carrying cell phones. (I'm sure that made the other drivers real happy with their former colleague.) The 40 injured passengers are going to have numerous avenues for lawsuits, including: negligent hiring/negligent entrustment (should Quinn have been operating the trolley in the first place?); and negligent policies (they only prohibited cell phone use after the accident). We can assume that the T will settle as quickly as possible. This case is a real loser.
The larger policy implications are intriguing. It is safe to assume that any employee in the course and scope of employment who tries to text while driving is opening a huge liability for the employer. Texting is even more dangerous than talking on a cell phone: after all, you have to look at the screen to read a message and at the key board to reply.
[Aside: my teenage daughter assures me that her friends can text behind their backs without looking at the keyboard. This might work in class, but not very well on the road: "Look Ma, no hands on the wheel!"]
[Second aside: speaking of Ma, for a truly appalling (YouTube) video of a teenager who texts over 5,000 times a month, often while driving, check this out. If you can explain the passive "what can you do?" attitude of the mother, please explain via our comment section.]
Employers are caught in a bind: they are virtually compelled to issue policies limiting cell phone use and texting while driving, even while they recognize that some of their best and most productive employees are multi-taskers who routinely operate this way.
Which brings us to the sad story of Phyllis Jen, a talented internal medicine specialist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Jen was driving her 2007 Toyota Prius when she drifted over the center lane at 6 pm (in full daylight). She crashed into another vehicle and was killed.
Police say it did not appear speed or alcohol played a role in the crash, but they were investigating whether Jen was using her Blackberry. Jen was famous for always being available, always willing to go the extra mile. Alas, she has abruptly and tragically run out of miles to go.
As companies struggle to integrate new technologies into safety procedures and as public officials struggle with whole new categories of risk, one thing is certain: the ubiquitous cell phone and related texting have taken a firm hold in our professional and personal lives. We just cannot seem to function without them. The problem is, in making ourselves available 24/7, we put our own lives and the lives of strangers at risk. Sure, we have important things to communicate. But on the scale of life itself, virtually all of these communications can and should be put off until time and circumstances allow. We might be dying to communicate with a colleague or friend, but it's certainly not worth dying for.