Ask any field force worker what the most important tool is in his or her road arsenal, chances are the cell phone will be the response. Not only do cell phones keep them connected, they also enable field workers to turn drive time into productive time.
However, this year, 40 states are considering legislation that would restrict cell phone use while driving. Some bills seek to make it punishable as reckless driving; others require police to record information on accidents involving cell phones. The majority of bills propose allowing cell phone use only with a hands-free device. For field workers who often use their cars as their offices, having to pull over to make or receive calls could significantly hurt productivity.
One company following the cell phone debate closely is Boca Raton, Fla.-based ADT Security Services. The company has more than 10,000 employees using wireless devices. Safety concerns have prompted a company policy that mandates that only hands-free cell use is permitted in company vehicles.
"We take [cell safety] very seriously and certainly want to be proactive about the safety of our workers and other people on the road," says Phil Nana, director of safety for ADT.
Gartner, a technology research firm, said in a May report on CNET News.com that companies will pay higher insurance premiums by 2003 if they have not established policies that limit cell phone use while driving.
Although cell phones have been on the scene since the early '80s, recent high-profile accidents have increased attention to the issue. One example is the case of Morgan Lee Pena, a 2-year-old killed in November 1999 by a driver who ran a stop sign while talking on his cell phone. The driver was given a ticket and a $50 fine. Since then, Patricia Pena, Morgan's mother, founded Advocates for Cell Phone Safety, an organization dedicated to banning cell phone use in cars. "Our primary goal is to urge public awareness and to urge legislators to more closely examine the problem." says Pena.
More fuel for the debate has come from research. A much-cited 1997 study by the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found that drivers using cell phones were four times more likely to have an accident--equivalent to the accident risk of a legally intoxicated driver. However, a more recent study done at the University of North Carolina (UNC) for the Automobile Association of America found that cell phones accounted for only 1.5 percent of all accidents between 1995 and 1999. Critics note that the UNC study relied on drivers admitting they were talking on a cell phone while driving. NEJM used phone records to determine which drivers were talking at the time of the accidents.
Lack of evidence is what the cellular industry is focusing on. The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), the wireless industry's trade group and lobbying organization, has begun an aggressive campaign urging further research and driver education in place of legislation. CTIA notes that all states already have some form of distracted driving law.
"We feel no new legislation is necessary," says Dee Yankoskie, manager, wireless education programs for CTIA. "We just need strict enforcement of the current legislation."
But Pena contends that existing laws have allowed drivers to get off with a slap on the wrist. "You can kill someone with your car, and you can say, 'Oops, I'm sorry, I was on a cell phone,' and you walk," says Pena.
Verizon Wireless, the country's largest wireless service provider, broke ranks with the cellular industry last summer and came out in support of cell phone legislation. Verizon says it will support legislation that exempts emergency calls, imposes a three-year phase-in period of the law, and is statewide.
Worldwide, the United states lags industrialized nations in cell phone restriction. Twenty-three countries either restrict or prohibit cell phones in motor vehicles. Japan, a cellular hotbed, enacted a hands-free mandate in 1996, and the police later reported a 52 percent drop in injuries and accidents for cell users. Encouraged, Japan then toughened the law to an outright ban.
To this point, only local restraints on cell phone use have passed in the United states. However, at the time of this writing, Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine of New Jersey and Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York had introduced separate federal legislation that would ban the use of cell phones while driving. Ackerman's version would continue to allow the use of hands-free cell phones; Corzine's would leave that issue up to the states.
The American public apparently is in favor of legislation. In May, an ABCNEWS.com phone poll of 1,027 adults showed that 69 percent say that use of a cellular telephone while driving should be banned. However, 72 percent believe that hands-free cell phone use should be legal.
Indeed, hands-free may wind up being the compromise solution, at least for now. But most hands-free devices don't prevent drivers from having to dial the phone or wrestle with headsets, and in the final analysis, the mental aspect of talking on the phone may be the real danger.
"Telephones that allowed the hands to be free did not appear to be safer than handheld telephones," said the NEJM study. "This may indicate that the main factor in most motor vehicle collisions is a driver's limitations in attention rather than dexterity." The future promises increased driver distraction. New phone-based services such as e-mail, traffic reports and even TV updates are now clamoring for drivers' attention.
Eighty-five percent of the nation's 110 million cell phone owners use them in some form while driving, according to a survey by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. From a field force perspective, the hope is that a workable compromise will emerge that saves lives, yet provides for mobile productivity.