Prying the Cell Phone from Your Cold, Dead Hands?

February 12th, 2009 by

The National Safety Council, surely a credible safety organization, has come out for a total ban on cell phone use while driving. The council points to increasing evidence that the distraction of cell phone use – with or without headphones – is a major cause of accidents. The council has written to the governors of all 50 states, recommending legislation to outlaw cell phones for individuals operating vehicles.
This is from their press release: “Studies show that driving while talking on a cell phone is extremely dangerous and puts drivers at a four times greater risk of a crash,” said Janet Froetscher, president and CEO of the NSC. “Driving drunk is also dangerous and against the law. When our friends have been drinking, we take the car keys away. It’s time to take the cell phone away.”
Of course, this is not about to happen. A few states have limited cell phone use – some require headsets and others prohibit teen drivers from using the ubiquitous devices. (The NSC website has maps showing which states have implemented bans.) Charleton Heston famously noted that he would never give up his right to bear arms – you would have to pry his guns from his “cold, dead hands.” American consumers have a similar attachment to their cell phones. Unfortunately, if the NSC numbers are correct, thousands of drivers will end up in accidents, cell phones in their cold hands – or perhaps headsets on their (cold) ears.
Looming Liabilities
The Insider has no position on cell phone use while driving. We recognize that it’s a dangerous distraction, but one that has become an essential component of American life. Do it if you must, but do it carefully.
The emerging issue is one of liability. Many of us make work-related calls while driving in our vehicles. If we were distracted during such a call (post-accident, it is pretty easy to determine to whom we were talking at the exact moment of impact), our employers are vulnerable to lawsuits for negligence.
In response to what is now a widely acknowledged risk, some employers have issued policies banning cell phone use while driving on company business. Are they serious about this, or are they just “covering their butts?” It’s one thing to have a policy, but if employers really intend to use the policy as a defense, they would have to prove that the cell phone ban is enforced. Theoretically, they would have to correlate cell phone records with known “time on the road” and take disciplinary action on employees who violate the policy. (Sounds like a lot of work for not much return, let alone a way of seriously compromising productivity.)
Perhaps the parties with the most at stake are the insurance carriers – the folks who write general liability and fleet auto policies for American companies, large and small. They are ultimately holding the bag for losses due to “negligent” driving. I wonder if these insurers will begin to require that their insureds issue and enforce “no cell phone” policies for drivers, in a manner similar to their requirements for safety committees and return-to-work programs for workers comp policy holders.
It will be interesting to track the development of this new and potentially expensive liability. In the meantime, the NCS has raised the bar significantly for all of us who drive and talk, and dare I add, drive and text. The sages of India recommend “one point of attention” at all times: when driving, just drive. Alas, this is hardly a viable option for a nation of time-harassed multi-taskers.