Cell Phones Revisited: Siren Calls on the Road to Oblivion

August 3rd, 2006 by

It seems that the Insider revisits the cell phone while driving issue once every year. (Just type “cell phones” on the search engine to the right.) This year is no different, except that red flags for employers are beginning to accumulate. Cell phone use by employees is something every employer needs to begin thinking about.
We are deep into the era of multi-tasking. We are all trying to do too many things at once. Actually, multi-tasking is probably a misnomer, because the brain can truly only do one thing at a time. Perhaps we should call it “sequential tasking” – where we shift rapidly from one point of attention to another. Sure, we’re driving down the road. But when we pick up the cell phone to answer a call, or try to dial while hurtling down the highway, we momentarily take our focus away from the road to the phone itself.
Research is beginning to accumulate on the high risk of accidents for drivers using cell phones. The University of Utah has published several studies, the most recent of which finds cell phones as potentially dangerous as alcohol:
“We found that people are as impaired when they drive and talk on a cell phone as they are when they drive intoxicated at the legal blood-alcohol limit” of 0.08 percent, which is the minimum level that defines illegal drunken driving in most U.S. states, says study co-author Frank Drews, an assistant professor of psychology. “If legislators really want to address driver distraction, then they should consider outlawing cell phone use while driving.”
Well, many states are considering laws on cell phone and driving, but only a handful have taken action. If you scan the globe, you will find European countries taking a much more aggressive stance against cell phone use while driving. Here, a few states require head sets and four (Colorado, Delaware, Maryland and Tennessee) prohibit young drivers from using cell phones. But for the most part, in the land of the free, drivers are still free to chatter away, endangering themselves and their fellow drivers as they barrel on down the road.
You Condone it, You Own it!
If drivers have been given a free pass, their employers have not. Court cases are beginning to accumulate, where employers are held responsible for the negligence of employees who cause accidents while talking on cell phones. Under the theory of “vicarious responsibility,” employers are held accountable for the havoc created by the inattention of chattering employee-drivers. (A very good history of the problem developed by the Insurance Information Institute can be found here.)
As luck would have it, one of the most prominent cases involves a lawyer. Attorney Jane Wagner was driving down the road, making work-related calls. (As far as I know, she wasn’t trying to take notes at the same time.) In any event, her car struck something – a deer, she thought, so she kept on going. It turns out she hit a 15 year old girl, who subsequently died. Wagner was convicted of leaving the scene of an accident. She lost her law license. Her employer, charged with complicity through the “vicarious responsibility” theory, reached a settlement prior to trial and paid a substantial sum. (You can find a summary of the case here, at the Fisher & Phillips LLC site.)
Policies versus Practices
This is not a comfortable situation for employers. While it’s easy enough to issue a policy prohibiting cell phone use while driving, it’s really hard to make it stick. You can “require” employees to pull off to the side of the road before using a cell phone. But how would you enforce it? Would you discipline an employee who violated the policy? Can you really expect people to ignore in-coming calls, simply because they’re in a moving vehicle? How many of us can ignore the siren call of the cell?
This may well be another situation where technology has outstripped our capacity to function. Back in 1990 there were 4.3 million cell phone users – and the units functioned poorly in moving vehicles. Now we have 212 million cell phone users, all of whom are connected to work, family and friends 24/7. Like it or not, we have bought into the notion that we must be accessible all the time, even when we’re deep into the risk-laden activity of driving. We’re putting ourselves and other drivers at risk. And now, it appears, our employers are on the hook as well.