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
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."
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
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
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
- 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
Pat Curry is a contributing editor based
-- Posted: Sept. 23, 2003