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City toughens cell phone policy to save lives and money

Posted by on February 8th, 2010 at 3:41 pm

“The combined estimated direct and indirect costs of losses attributable to cell phone use while driving on City business = $283,554 to $1,039,698 annually.”
— From a City risk assessment report on the use of cell phones while driving

The City of Portland is taking Oregon’s new cell phone law one step further when it comes to their own employees.

A new state law prohibits the use of hand-held “mobile communication devices” while driving, but it makes two major exceptions: hands-free use is still allowed and so is using a cell phone “in the scope of the person’s employment.”

While the law gives specific exceptions for emergency responders and CB radio operators, it left the door wide open to others who drive on the job. The City of Portland has now closed that door for their employees.

Late last month, the City’s Office of Management and Finance (OMF) Risk Management Division issued an 11-page assessment of the risk posed by using cell phones while driving on City business. The report, titled Best Practices: Employee Use of Mobile Communication Devices While Operating Motor Vehicles (download here), states that:

“For general duty driving on City of Portland business, excluding sworn Police and Fire officers: hand-held and hands-free cell phones, PDA’s, and other mobile communication devices used to talk, listen, write, send, and receive text-based communication, must not be used by the driver while the vehicle is in operation.”

The City is doing this not just to keep people safe, but to save money as well. According to the report, OMF found that the City incurs $250,000 to $1 million per year because of employees using cell phones while driving. From the report:

“Crashes expose the City to workers’ compensation losses, damage to City property and liability for harm to others: current estimate for the City of between $250,000 and $1 million per year.”

That estimate was based on an analysis of total costs to maintain the City’s vehicle fleet between 2004 and 2008. Using crash data from a 2006 Virginia Tech study that found 7.14% of crashes can be attributed to cell phone use, the City estimates a total of $94,518 in annual direct costs (from combination of fleet liability, worker’s comp, and vehicle repair costs) and about 13 crashes per year due to cell phone use.

The OMF also fund that indirect costs associated with those crashes can account for up to 10 times the expense of the direct costs.

In addition to improving safety and their bottom line, the OMF report cites public pressure as another reason to ban all use of cell phones while driving. Even though the Oregon law allows cell phones while driving for work, the OMF report states that, “the public will likely expect all drivers to go “hands free”” and that, “City drivers using hand-held devices – even though allowed by law – may harm the City’s public reputation.”

You can download a PDF of this report on the City’s Risk Management Services website.

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  • Marcus Griffith February 8, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    Kudos to the City of Portland for being proactive. Maybe other employers will follow suit.

    For the life of me, I still can’t understand why people can’t wait to get where their going to make a call.

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  • Anonymous February 8, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    I hope we all remember this applies to riding bikes too! I once thought I was invincible… until I crashed while on my cell because I couldn’t grab the handlebars in time for a bump. A new front wheel and a few trips to the chiropractor later, I felt pretty dumb. Not going to happen again. Save yourselves!

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  • KWW February 8, 2010 at 5:49 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with the policy which is outlined here:

    However, it burns me that they estimate the damages by cell phone use by extrapolating data from another report based in another location:
    “The City does not currently capture and/or track loss data specifically related to cell phone use. However, using research data we can estimate losses due to use of cell phones while driving.”

    That may be perfectly acceptable in terms of risk management policy, but it is sure to grab a negative headline at the expense of city workers, who in all likelihood, aren’t doing this to begin with.

    Take this article for instance, the highlight of the text body is “The combined estimated direct and indirect costs of losses attributable to cell phone use while driving on City business = $283,554 to $1,039,698 annually.”
    — From a City risk assessment report on the use of cell phones while driving.

    It would of nice to highlight that the city is going beyond the state requirement instead of bouncing around those extrapolated numbers.

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  • Zaphod February 8, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    Just yesterday I was rolling along with some hard earned momentum on the cargo bike when a stylish women on a well equipped dutch bike blew through a stop sight talking on the phone with nary a glance in my direction. While I didn’t have to brake, it certainly seemed like if it had been a closer call, she wouldn’t have done anything different. I wasn’t angry, only amused.

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  • Anne Hawley February 8, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    I’m happy to see the City of Portland once again taking the lead, and I’m pleased to see them include hands-free as well as hand-held devices in their policy statement.

    My own experience is that even a truly hands-free (i.e., wired in, over-the-radio-speakers bluetooth device), while noticeably less distracting than holding onto a phone, is still distracting. (I can’t imagine taking or making a call while in motion on my bike!)

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  • N.I.K. February 8, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    B-b-but I thought the bad guys wore nought but lycra and rode drop-bar carbon rigs.

    At least tell me she had a helmet and was holding a copy of Forester in her other hand.


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  • jf February 9, 2010 at 2:29 am

    interesting article. recently, given a fortunate vantage point from my porch (overlooking a major cycling street), i’ve noticed a number of both motorists and cyclists engaged in cell phone use while in transit. I’m never happy to see either.

    I’m curious regarding a statement in the article: “Using crash data from a 2006 Virginia Tech study that found 7.14% of crashes can be attributed to cell phone use,” is there a reference or link anyone can provide for this statement? i’d be interested in reading the entirety of this study.

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