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The Perils of Distracted Driving

Numerous studies have shown that cellphone use while driving distracts drivers and reduces their ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. While there are other driving distractions such as screaming children, flashing billboards and eating, the focus of this Tailgate Topic is distracted driving due to cellphone use.

A Few Facts
To begin, let’s review some facts about using a cellphone while driving. Unless otherwise noted, all of the following information is provided by the National Safety Council.

According to a survey conducted in 2011 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 69 percent of surveyed U.S. drivers ages 18-64 indicated they had talked on their cellphone while driving within the 30 days before they were surveyed. The survey also found that 31 percent of drivers ages 18-64 reported that they had read or sent text messages or emails while driving.

Furthermore, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, in 2011, 52 percent of all fatal crashes reported in the U.S. involved the use of a cellphone.

With data that shows that cellphone use while driving was a factor in more than half of all fatal motor vehicle accidents in 2011, why, then, do drivers use cellphones as much as they do? The answer is that most drivers believe they can multitask, but in fact, the human brain cannot multitask. The task of driving uses one part of the brain and the task of talking on a cellphone uses a different part of the brain. Rather than performing both functions at once, the brain rapidly switches back and forth between the two tasks. The danger is that both driving and talking on the phone are thinking tasks that are much more hazardous in combination than, say, walking – a thinking task – and chewing gum – a nonthinking task.

Reaction Times
According to a controlled driving simulator study conducted by the University of Utah, people using cellphones while driving had slower reaction times than drivers with a .08 blood alcohol content – the legal intoxication limit.

State Laws
Just as there are laws against driving with a blood alcohol content of .08 or greater, there are also laws against cellphone use while driving. The difference is that the .08 law applies to every state across the nation. Laws prohibiting cellphone use, however, vary by state.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, as of July 2014, talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving is banned in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.

The use of all cellphones by novice drivers is restricted in 36 states and the District of Columbia.

Text messaging is banned for all drivers in 44 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, novice drivers are banned from texting in Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.

Many localities have enacted their own bans on cellphones or text messaging. In some but not all states, local jurisdictions need specific statutory authority to do so. In addition, most school bus drivers are banned from texting and using hand-held cellphones by state code, regulation or school district policy.

Federal Rules
Per an October 4, 2010 OSHA memorandum to employers, an employer has an obligation to create and maintain a safe workplace, including having a clear, enforced policy against the hazard of texting while driving. Companies are in violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act if they require texting while driving, create incentives that encourage or condone it, or structure work so that texting while driving is a necessity for workers to carry out their jobs. Visit for more information.

In addition, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration jointly passed a rule that prohibits commercial drivers from using hand-held mobile phones while operating a commercial motor vehicle (see 49 CFR 177.804 effective January 3, 2012). The ban includes texting, hand-held device dialing and hand-held device conversations.

Avoiding Distracted Driving
Prohibiting employee use of hand-held cellphones while operating a vehicle – whether the vehicle is in motion or stopped at a traffic light – is a great way for companies to begin to tackle this hazardous issue. Prohibited cellphone activities would include answering or making phone calls, engaging in phone conversations, and reading or responding to emails, text messages or any other type of message.

As an individual, a good practice is to turn off your cellphone before you start the vehicle, or to silence it or put it in vibrate mode, and modify your voice mail greeting to indicate that you are unavailable to answer calls or return messages while driving.

The bottom line is, don’t take chances. Cellphone use while driving is a dangerous activity and should be prohibited.

About the Author: Gary Coleman, CHST, CUSP, OHST, is a group safety manager for Aldridge Electric. He has 30 years of construction experience with 12 years in construction safety, and holds a Master of Science degree from Northern Illinois University.

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