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Cell phone chatter can cause accidents

You have seen these drivers and, in frightening moments, you've driven near them. One hand is holding their cell phone and the other is clutching a cup of coffee or a burger, which begs the question, "How are they driving?"

On far too many occasions, the answer is: badly. A 1997 report in the New England Journal of Medicine compared the effects of using a cell phone while driving to the impact of driving legally drunk. While the study's methodology has been criticized, eyewitness reports confirm the problem.

"I can always tell when I'm behind someone who is on the phone," says Patty Butler, an Atlanta labor attorney who has written articles on employer liability for their employees' auto accidents when they're on the phone. "They're not paying attention. They speed up, they slow down, they change lanes unexpectedly."

"You see them weaving and driving very slowly," says Tim Heerdt, a risk control director for the St. Paul Companies, a major business property and casualty insurer. "It's very similar to the impact of someone under the influence."

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According to the Insurance Information Institute, nearly 135 million people used cell phones in the United States in 2002. That's up from about 4.3 million in 1990. But while cell phones provide a major convenience, recent studies have shed light on the safety risks of using one while driving.

The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis reported in December 2002 that cell phone use could be faulted in 6 percent of the auto accidents in the United States each year. In the past three years, cell phone usage has been an issue in several lawsuits, and employers are being held responsible if a worker causes an accident while talking on the phone.

In response to a growing number of accidents involving inexperienced drivers who were talking on the phone, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended this summer that states take immediate action. The NTSB called for all states to follow New Jersey's lead and ban drivers with learner's permits or intermediate licenses from using cell phones, pagers or any other electronic device while driving.

To date, New York has banned everyone from using hand-held cell phones while driving; hands-free devices are permitted. A first-time violation carries up to a $100 fine. Ten other states, and many municipalities, have regulations on the books restricting their use. This summer, a California bill that would have banned using hand-held phones while driving died in committee because the sponsor concluded that amendments to the bill would make it unenforceable.

Despite the legislative emphasis on hand-held phones, research has indicated that it's the conversation itself that keeps drivers from paying attention to the road. A National Safety Council study found that people who were talking on the phone, whether it was hand-held or hands-free, missed twice as many simulated traffic signals as drivers who weren't on the phone.

"We're aware of a case now with three fatalities with a hands-free phone," Heerdt says. "The person wandered out of his lane and pushed another car into oncoming traffic.

One thing about cell phone conversations is that lengthy ones can be very involved.

"People ask. 'How is it different from adjusting the radio?' Compare that to a half-hour business call, closing a deal or disciplining your children."

The information on cell phones' roles in accidents is still largely anecdotal, but that may be changing. Heerdt says that police departments are starting to include questions about cell phones on their accident reports, and his company asks applicants if their companies restrict employees from using cell phones while they're driving. A 'no' answer won't keep them from getting insurance, but it won't win them any brownie points, either.

State Farm Insurance, the nation's largest personal auto insurer, doesn't track cell phone usage on accident claims, but spokesman Dick Luedke says the company is aware that they are "one of many potential distractions while driving. They've become part of our culture and we hope people use them responsibly so it doesn't distract them from the most important activity at hand."

If you must use the cell phone while driving, highway safety experts recommend that you:

  • Get to know your phone and its features so you know where the buttons are.
  • Use a hands-free headset.
  • Keep your phone within easy reach so you don't have to reach or bend over to answer it.
  • Don't take or place calls during heavy traffic or severe weather.
  • Don't take notes or look up phone numbers.
  • If possible, place calls when you are stopped, or when you're not merging.
  • Don't have stressful or emotional conversations while you're driving.

Pat Curry is a contributing editor based in Georgia.

-- Posted: Sept. 23, 2003

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