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Industry puts cell phone safety on hold

Paul Snyder
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A screech of tires, a row of sweat beads on his forehead and a near-miss with the car in front of him told Michael Murray that talking on the phone was not a safe call.

“You’re blinded when you’ve got your hand up there and you’re thinking about a bunch of other things,” said Murray, safety director for Madison-based Vogel Bros. Building Co. “The guy in front of me just stopped suddenly. Would I have had to hit the brakes anyway? Probably. But I would’ve reacted sooner.”

That close call three years ago on Packers Avenue in Madison immediately prompted Murray to get a hands-free device for his phone. Murray said not everyone at Vogel has one, but company representatives are talking about making that move.

“Anybody who’s ever talked on the cell phone in a car has probably had a close call, and the fact is at construction companies, we’re transient,” he said. “Business does take place while you’re driving.”

Paul Reed, president and owner of Madison-based Harmony Construction Management Inc., said he and all of his employees use cell phones while driving.

“We haven’t had any accidents,” he said. “We have this rule about driving in the city or along (Madison’s Beltline Highway) that you should pull over, but it isn’t written. There’s no company policy about it.”

The trouble construction companies have enforcing such policies is playing out on a statewide stage in the Legislature. State Sen. Alan Lasee, R-De Pere, is the author of a bill that would ban drivers 18 and younger from text messaging while driving.

The bill started out as a texting ban for all ages, but Senate committee amendments tacked on the age limit.

“I hope some brave soul will amend it before it hits the floor,” Lasee said. “It’s important for all ages.”
State Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, is pushing through the Assembly a similar bill with no age limits.

The texting bill might have a chance, Lasee said, but there might not be the political will to ban cell phone use while driving or even back a statewide mandate for hands-free devices “because all legislators talk on their cells,” he said.

“We all drive a lot,” Lasee said, “and going back and forth from Madison to the district, we’re all on the phone.”

It’s a difficult habit to break, Barca said, and Wisconsin does not have hard data on cell phone-related accidents, leaving state lawmakers with only national figures to support their bills.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute this summer issued a report analyzing the danger of cell phone use while driving. In trucks and heavy vehicles, the risk of a crash or near-crash increased by 5.9 times while dialing a cell phone, 6.7 times while using or reaching for an electronic device and 23.2 times while text messaging.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation has not done a comprehensive update of its crash statistics information since 1989, said Dennis Hughes, chief of safety for the Wisconsin State Patrol. A legislative committee is working on an update that would include cell phone use, Hughes said, but that revision will not happen until next year at the earliest.

Even then, he said, the data will only be as honest as the drivers who answer the questions.

“It depends on what kind of information an officer can glean at the site of an accident,” he said. “Look at seat belts. Even in a minor fender-bender, an officer asks, ‘Were you wearing your seat belt?’ and the answer is almost always, ‘Oh, well, yeah,’ even if they weren’t.”

Hughes said despite the dangers, he talks on his cell phone while driving.

“But I can say I’ve never dialed while driving,” he said.

If the state prohibits cell phone use while driving, Reed said, it could pinch construction companies that cannot afford handless devices for all employees. Furthermore, he said, there are a lot of gray areas in construction when it comes to defining “emergency use.”

“Is it that someone’s been injured?” he said. “Or is it that the cement guy hasn’t shown up yet or he’s there and your crew isn’t?”

Murray said effective handless devices for cell phones cost about $60. With 30 employees, Vogel’s tab would come to $1,800. But compared with higher insurance premiums or repair work on a truck involved in an accident, the cost is comparable.

“It takes a discipline to put in the handless unit every time,” he said. “But it’s just like anything. You have to teach people what the expectations are.”

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