- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Can they hear you now? Company executives sure hope not.

Businesses are prohibiting workers from talking on cell phones when driving on company time in an effort to avoid accidents, even though the law permits dialing and driving.

Pepco Holdings Inc. forbids workers from talking on any phone hand-held or hands-free while driving the local electric utility’s cars, spokesman Bob Dobkin said.

Giant Food implemented travel guidelines in 2005 that ask employees to refrain from answering calls on the road.

Verizon Wireless, however, requires employees to use a hands-free device or headset in case they have to talk on a wireless phone while driving, said spokesman John H. Johnson. The company’s policy does not allow workers to manually dial or look up phone numbers when driving.

Even network test drivers, the “Can you hear me now?” employees, undergo special driver safety training.

Distracted driving accounted for at least 6.4 percent of crash fatalities in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Increased reliance on cell phones has led to a rise in the number of people who use them at the wheel in company-owned or operated vehicles. Driver cell-phone use increased in 2005, with 6 percent of drivers on hand-held phones nationwide compared with 5 percent in 2004, according to a survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Many employees think they can safely talk and drive, particularly with a headset or hands-free equipment.

Studies, however, show that talking on a hands-free cell phone can impair driving.

“Universities have proven hands-free is no better than cell phones,” said Gary Rothstein, president of Mobile Awareness, an Ohio company that designs vehicle safety products. “It has to do with cognitive ability. Who’s to determine who can and can’t hold a conversation?”

At Sprint Nextel, employees must complete a driver training class. Instructors emphasize that cell phones are just one of many distractions drivers face when they get behind the wheel.

Employees who drive company-owned vehicles also are required to sign a driver agreement, said spokesman John Taylor.

“Our approach is to emphasize all distraction as something drivers should be aware of,” Mr. Taylor said. He added that overall education for distracted driving is just as important as cautioning cell-phone use.

Falls Church Florist has a verbal agreement with employees to pull over when driving and using a phone in the District of Columbia, which bans the use of hand-held phones while driving.

No federal law prohibits using a cell phone while driving, but some states and jurisdictions have passed laws that ban hand-held cell phone use for all drivers, including the District, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.

Maryland does not have a cell-phone ban except for learner’s permit and intermediate license holders. Neither does Virginia, but a law taking effect July 1 makes using any type of wireless device while driving a secondary offense for anyone younger than 18, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Verizon Wireless created a nationwide policy about five years ago to encourage its employees to use wireless communication responsibly.

Employees must program important and frequently dialed numbers and use the voice-activated and speed-dialing features of the phones. Employees cannot take notes, check or send e-mail, text or pictures while driving.

Verizon Wireless has about 100 network test drivers whose $500,000 specially equipped vehicles have computerized automatic-call-completion equipment so workers don’t have to personally place calls as they drive routes testing the network to make sure it is performing well, Mr. Johnson said.

“It gets to what your approach is when dealing with your employees,” Mr. Taylor said. “Every company culture is different.”

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