Employees of the city of Halifax can no longer use cellular phones while operating a municipality-owned vehicle or while using their own vehicles for municipality purposes — a move the city hopes corporations in the private sector will mimic, either by choice or through a city-wide ban.
Halifax’s chief administrative officer, George McLellan, said the policy is a major step in promoting safer use of cell phones and reducing the risk of accidents that could be caused by driver distraction. Cellphone-related accidents have not been a problem for the municipality, he said, but the city wants to be proactive. In addition to improving safety, the city hopes the policy will save money by reducing insurance liability costs for its vehicles.
“This is the minimum standard to be followed by all HRM (Halifax Regional Municipality) employees,” said McLellan. “If it is necessary for an HRM employee to use the cell phone in a vehicle, then he or she must stop the vehicle in a safe location before receiving or placing calls. We would hope our employers would observe this same safety policy when using their own cellular phones in their own vehicles on their own time.”
The policy, which was developed by representatives of the municipality’s occupational health and safety group and several business units, stipulates:
•HRM employees should not receive incoming calls or place outgoing calls on a cell phone while in traffic;
•to respond to an incoming call or to place an outgoing call, employees are required to pull their vehicle safely to the side of the road before using the cell phone; and
•in cases where a cell phone is equipped with voice mail, incoming calls must be allowed to go to voice mail if the vehicle is moving or while in traffic. Calls may then be checked and returned when the vehicle is stopped in a safe location or after the employee has reached her destination.
There are some exceptions to the rules:
•A driver can use a cell phone to place and receive calls without the use of either hand (for example, voice activation).
•When the purpose of the phone call is an emergency situation (for example, when the user needs to call for assistance from police or fire services, or to call for an ambulance).
•When operating an official emergency vehicle in an emergency situation.
The policy states cell phones equipped with a headset may be programmed to answer an incoming call automatically after the first or second ring, and to hang up automatically after the other party disconnects so the driver doesn’t have to use their hands to receive a call — but the conversation should be kept brief. Even with a headset, phones without voice activation still require the use of a driver’s hands to place a call so the municipality requires drivers to pull over to place an outgoing call.
The policy governs city employees, but not elected officials.
“Our first step is to put it in place for our employees,” McLelland told the
Halifax Daily News.
“We would hope that councilors and the mayor would support and follow the policy as well, although it’s not encompassing on them as yet.”
McLellan said the city will encourage other corporations to enact similar policies, and might look at a bylaw banning the use of all cellphones while driving in the future. But he said it might be better to let the provincial government set the rules for a province-wide ban.
But Nova Scotia’s transportation minister, Ron Russell, said the province isn’t likely to follow Halifax’s lead. Russell said he wants to wait until a national proposal comes forward next spring, which will allow all provinces to adopt a common policy.
“I would suggest that it would follow the lines of, ‘hand-free, okay; non-hand-free, no,’” he said.
Growing public health risk
Halifax’s move to ban cell phone use by municipality staff comes just as new statistics about cell phones and driving are released.
According to research out of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., there is a growing risk from the reliance on cell phones in cars as the number of cell phone subscribers in the U.S. has grown from 94 million in 2000 to more than 128 million. The Harvard Centre for Risk Analysis suggested that drivers talking on their phones are responsible for about six per cent of accidents each year, killing an estimated 2,600 people and injuring 330,000 others. The figure was reached using current cell phone usage estimates to update a 1997 study. That study looked at phone records of Canadian drivers involved in crashes to see if they were making calls at the time.
Harvard researchers pegged the cost of accidents caused by cell phones — such as medical bills and loss of life — at US$43 billion a year.
Other findings from the study include:
•A cell phone user has about 13 chances in one million of being killed in an accident while making a call. That compares with 49 in one million for someone driving without a seat belt; and
•Other drivers and pedestrians have about four chances in one million of dying in an accident caused by a cell phone user. The change of being killed by a drunk driver is more than four times as high — 18 in a million.