Several recent developments in safety policy and safety research suggest it would be a prudent investment to re-examine your company's policies with respect to cellphone usage while driving.

On July 1, laws impacting the usage of wireless communication devices while driving went into effect in two additional states — California and Washington. Those new laws bring the total number of state-specific rules to five (New York, Connecticut and New Jersey also have them), plus the District of Columbia. Generally, these laws prohibit the use of hand-held mobile communication devices while driving. Most, if not all, of those rules waive those prohibitions for users in hands-free mode. In addition, the New Jersey provisions include a text messaging ban and such a ban will become effective in Minnesota on August 1.

Two recent studies have better quantified the nature and extent of “driving task distraction” that is attributable to talking and/or listening on mobile communication devices.

In March, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging published a study which revealed “…that just listening to a cellphone while driving is a significant distraction and causes drivers to commit some of the same types of driving errors that can occur under the influence of alcohol.”

That study employed sophisticated brain imaging techniques that measured activity in various sections of the brain as participants used a driver simulator to steer a car along a virtual road. Participants first completed the driving task while undisturbed. They next completed the task while listening in on a cellphone conversation. Researchers found that brain activity in sections utilized in driving was reduced by as much as 37% during the “driving while listening” phase of the test.

In June, researchers from the University of South Carolina released the findings of a similar study in the research journal Experimental Psychology. In that analysis, researchers asked study participants to detect visual shapes on a computer and to use a computer mouse to track fast moving targets. Participants were asked to complete these tasks while just listening to a prerecorded narrative and then to complete the tasks while responding to the same prerecorded narrative. Researchers found that the participants were nearly four times as distracted while they were preparing to speak or speaking as compared to when they were just listening.

Given these findings and the extensive use of wireless communication devices while driving (e.g., one recent study found that 74% of respondents admitted using a cellphone while driving), it is inevitable that the link between this usage and crash causation will be aired in the trial courts. A recent Georgia case, for example, resulted in a $5.2 million award to a woman whose car was rear-ended by another woman who was talking on a cellphone just prior to the crash.

I urge you to revisit your safety policy with respect to wireless communication device usage while driving. While reviewing, envision where your policy resides on the “continuum” between a total usage ban (e.g., see ExxonMobil, Shell Oil or others), a hands-free requirement or total tolerance (e.g., no prohibition). Consider how you might strengthen your policy with guidelines about when and where phoning while driving is inappropriate or risky. Most importantly, be sure that you or your management team(s) would be comfortable defending your policy in front of a jury of your peers.

Jim York is the ass't. vice president of technical services for Zurich Services Corp. Risk Engineering in Schaumburg, IL.