Cellphones and business a lethal mix (editorial)

Was the last erratic driver you saw doing business on a cellphone? Could it have been an employee of yours? Driving and telephoning may be as lethal a mix as getting behind the wheel after consuming alcohol, and employers may find themselves held partially responsible when accidents occur.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on what is believed to be the first two such cases. In one incident, a San Francisco lawyer on business in Virginia, who regularly chalked up billable hours on the phone while driving, hit and killed a pedestrian while on a call. The victim’s family is suing the lawyer’s employer for (US) $30 million, claiming the firm pushes people to work long hours encouraging staff to use cellphones without setting safety guidelines.

In another case, a New York brokerage firm settled out of court for (US) $500,000 without admitting wrongdoing in the death of a motorcyclist hit by one of the firm’s employee’s who was driving and phoning.

Road tests in the United States indicate drivers using cellphones are indeed impairing their ability to operate a vehicle safely, in the same manner as if they had been drinking. Cellphone manufacturers are disputing the danger of driving and phoning, but a recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine that reviewed 700 accidents concluded using a cellphone while driving increases the risk of an accident fourfold. And there are too many heart-wrenching anecdotal stories to attest to the fact that drivers on phones are putting people in graves.

U.S. legislators are starting to wake up to the problem. New York has passed a law curbing the use of cellphones while driving, and restrictions are being considered in 42 other states.

The explosion of cellphone use is another example of technology being in front of society. But indications are that lawmakers are starting to catch up, and the days of multi-tasking drivers swerving along roadways may soon be over.

Canadian employers don’t need to wait for our politicians to tackle the issue. It’s time to get employees to recognize the dangers of driving and phoning now.
Doing business over the phone in the car should not be a response to work-life balance. Nor should a car trip be an opportunity to increase productivity. With employees commuting as much as two to four hours a day, it’s tempting to make use of the time to get work done. Staff on the road during work hours can be more efficient if they take calls, but the costs of this productivity are too high.

Firms need to establish policies in this area. Pulling over to make calls, or waiting until you reach your destination, can literally make the difference between life and death. And while guidelines are needed for employees working on phones while driving, employers should also raise awareness among all staff that driving and phoning don’t mix, whether it’s on work or personal time.

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