Going back to July 19 of 2004 the Insider has been tracking the dangers of cell phone use while driving. There are currently over 190 million cell phone users in the United States, compared to a mere 4.3 million users back in 1990. There is a lot of research going on and a fair amount of anecdotal information, but there's still a lot that we don't understand about the specific risks posed by driver cell phone use. Here's what we know: the use of cell phones while driving is definitely a distraction and in many situations a serous danger. States and municipalities are increasingly requiring that drivers use hand free technology (headsets), even though the research shows little or no amelioration of risk when such devices are used. In other words, headsets might not be safer, but given the increasing risk of citations from local police, they might well be cheaper than holding the phone to your ear.
Chicago and the Nation
The city of Chicago has a new ordinance on cell phone use while driving that goes into effect on Friday. Under the ordinance, passed by the City Council in May, drivers using their cell phones without headsets are subject to a $50 fine. If they are in an accident while talking without a headset, the fine goes up to $200 (although it is not clear to me whether you have to prove that cell phone use contributed to the accident). No one seems to know whether Chicago's finest are going to pursue chatting drivers with any degree of determination. But in any event, the ordinance has proven a tremendous boon to local commerce, which is selling headsets like the proverbial hotcakes.
Across the country, four states have banned the use of cell phones by young drivers: Colorado, Delaware, Maryland and Tennessee. I think limiting cell phone use among novice drivers is a good idea, even though it will undoubtedly prove difficult to enforce. Connecticut recently passed a law requiring the use of headsets and the governor is expected to sign it into law, thereby joining other states with similar requirements -- New Jersey, New York and the District of Columbia. Even though headsets have not been proven to reduce risk, legislatures seem willing to require them, in the attempt to at least "do something" about a wide spread problem. For an excellent summary of the current status of cell phones and driving, we heartily recommend this summary from the Insurance Information Institute.
The Insider has cautioned that businesses may be liable for accidents involving employees on cell phones -- whether they are using headsets or not. The California Association of Employers has gone so far as to recommend that employers have cell phone policies that require employees to pull off the road before conducting business by cell phone. Such policies are likely to be unenforceable, but might offer a line of defense against liability claims, should the chatting employee cause an accident.
There have been several multi-million dollar settlements by employers whose employees injured others while talking on the phone. There will be many more to come. The only iron clad defense for the employer would be an outright prohibition of the use of cell phones while employees are driving. I don't expect to see many employers take that drastic (and potentially counter-productive) step. In the meantime, employers need to focus their attention on the ubiquitous cell phone, yet another new technology we cannot live without, even as the little device gives rise to a new dimension of risk in the working world.