Fatal distraction: Cellphone use contributes to car crashes

Rebecca Weitzel
Rebecca Weitzel

I have a confession to make: I’ve used my cellphone while driving. Although I don’t text, I’ve engaged in conversations with and without a hands-free device.

Perhaps you’re like me and have justified this behavior by thinking to yourself, “What harm can it do? I’ve got my eyes on the road. And hey — I’m maximizing my time.” Or maybe you’re like the 80 percent of drivers who indicated in a 2014 national survey they believe the mistaken notion hands-free devices are safer than hand-held.

Whether we realize it or not, cellphone use of any kind significantly impairs our driving abilities, placing us at a four times greater risk of crashing. Unlike chatting with someone in your car — which, according to a University of Utah study, can actually help alert us to potential hazards — talking with someone on the phone, even hands-free, distracts our brains in ways in which we’re not aware. Because we aren’t aware we’re impaired, we’re less inclined to change our behavior.

Research over the past 20 years has demonstrated our attention is selective and, as a result, blinds us too much of what we assume we’ll see. In a series of experiments conducted by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris that began in 1999, volunteers watched a video of basketball players in a circle, passing a ball among themselves. Half of the players wore white shirts and half wore black. Volunteers were asked to count the number of times the players in white shirts passed the ball. At the end of the video, volunteers were asked for their counts. Then, in a twist, volunteers were asked, “Did you see the gorilla?”

Half way through the short video, a character dressed in a gorilla costume walked into the middle of the scene, beat his chest and exited. Although the gorilla was center stage for nine seconds, half of the volunteers didn’t see it. Moreover, they were so convinced they would have seen it, they insisted on re-watching the video to verify its existence. Sure enough, there it was. Impossible to miss.

The moral of the story is not only that we miss things we don’t expect to see when we’re focused on something else — such as a cyclist passing in front of our car during a phone conversation — but also we’re thoroughly convinced this only happens to others. To address this problem, we must acknowledge and then account for the limitations in our ability to focus on more than one thing.

What does this mean for business? Consider this: According to the National Safety Council (NSC), motor vehicle crashes rank No. 1 among causes of work-related deaths in the United States. Crashes also result in significant costs to employers, an average of $24,500 in property damages and $150,000 in injuries. Of those crashes, an estimated one in four involved cellphone use — including hands-free devices.

What’s more, employers can be held liable if their employees were acting within the scope of their employment at the time of the crashes. According to a list of lawsuits compiled by the NSC, employers have faced steep penalties for cellphone-related crashes. While some cases involved the more obvious commercial drivers, others involved employees using personal vehicles and cellphones while conducting business-related calls — even during non-work hours.

According to the NSC, the best way to protect employees and mitigate liability risk is to implement a cellphone policy that bans work-related cellphone use while driving.

A policy should apply to the following: hand-held and hands-free devices, all employees, all company vehicles and cellphones and personal vehicles and cellphones if used during work hours or for work-related purposes.

Companies also should educate employees about their policies, monitor compliance and quickly address violations. Moreover, employees should be encouraged to take a pledge to refrain from cellphone use while driving.

Think about it: No call or text, business-related or otherwise, would ever be considered “worth it” if it resulted in a tragic accident.

Consider becoming like the new me by turning on your phone’s “do not disturb while driving” feature today. Let’s each do our part to protect ourselves, our businesses, our loved ones and our communities.