Oct 02, 2009

Stop Honking! Can't You See I'm on the Phone?

That was one of my favorite bumper stickers a few years ago -- and it's even more appropriate today, as more and more employers, states, and now even the federal government are regulating what drivers may do with their cell phones. Just last week, President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting federal employees from texting while driving whenever they are working, whether they are using government-issued phones and cars or not.

State legislators, sometimes in response to well-publicized and horrific crashes, have banned texting in 18 states; it's also banned in the District of Columbia. Although no state currently bans all drivers from using a cell phone, six states require drivers to use hands-free devices if they want to talk on the phone, and almost half of the states ban all cell phone use by new drivers. (You can see state-by-state charts on these issues at the Governors Highway Safety Association website.)

Studies have consistently shown that driving while distracted is very dangerous. An interesting research project by the National Highway Transportation Association and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute studied the behavior of actual drivers by putting video and sensor equipment in 100 cars for one year. And it was a very eventful year indeed: The drivers put more than two million miles on their cars, had 82 crashes, 761 near-crashes, and more than 8,000 "critical incidents," in which the driver either got to close to something or someone (like a pedestrian or parked car) or had to swerve or brake to avoid a crash. Among other things, the study revealed that:

  • Dialing is dangerous, but . . . Although dialing a cell phone is significantly more dangerous than simply talking or listening on the phone, the number of accidents and near-accidents attributable to each activity were about the same because drivers spend so much more time talking on the phone than dialing it.
  • Bugs in the car cause a lot of trouble. Certain activities that we all know (or might guess) are dangerous, such as reading, putting on makeup, and dialing a cell phone, increase the risk of an accident by a factor of three. Having an insect in the car increases the risk by a factor of seven. And don't try to swat it: Reaching for a moving object in the car increases a driver's risk of having an accident by a factor of nine.
  • Experience counts. Drivers with more years of experience had far fewer crashes and near-crashes than less experienced drivers.
  • Better drivers just seem nicer. Better drivers -- those with fewer crashes and near-crashes -- scored higher on tests that measure extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
  • Some people are just really bad drivers. A relatively small number of drivers caused most of the problems. 27 of the drivers in the test were responsible for almost 75% of the crashes and near-crashes. One of them had 15 incidents in one year.

Given the facts on distracted driving, the increasing number of governments that ban texting and hand-held devices, and the potential for liability, many employers now prohibit employees from texting or using cell phones while driving, or require employees to use hands-free equipment. If your company wants to do the same, you can find sample policy language on these issues in my book, Smart Policies for Workplace Technologies.