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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

“As anti-texting laws lag, states take over”

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Map of the U.S. showing states with laws banning texting while driving. The Kansas City Star 2009

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With so much attention focused on the dangers of texting while driving, you’d have to say thatNoah Landerwas ahead of the times when he told his employees five years ago to put down their cell phones and watch the road.

Lander, who owns a 1-800-GOT-JUNK franchise in University City, Mo., decided it wasn’t worth the potential hit to his insurance rates to allow workers to talk or text while driving.

“”The second time one of our drivers rear-ended somebody while talking on the phone, I put the kibosh on that,”” said Lander, who has eight trucks roaming the city on the typical day.

Lander is hardly alone in his conviction that texting and driving don’t mix.

Research, including a recent study the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, suggests the practice can be as risky as drinking while driving. There’s talk in Congress about withholding federal highway funding from states that don’t outlaw it. And late last week, PresidentBarack Obamasigned an executive order that could have major implications for the future of mobile texting.

For starters, it banned all federal employees — that’s about 4.5 million people, including the military — from texting and driving while doing government business or using government phones. The order defines texting to include sending or reading messages, as well as things like typing an address into a GPS device.

But the order also instructs government agencies to “”encourage”” contractors and subcontractors to follow the government’s lead.

“”We’ll see the trickle-down effect after those agencies start to put that into their contracts,”” saidSuzanne Alumbaugh Bowling, a human resources expert with Employer Advantage, a Joplin-based firm that provides business services to a wide range of companies.

Already there has been a significant movement locally and nationally by companies that essentially have decided lawmakers haven’t done enough to curtail what studies have shown to be a hazardous activity. And it’s a problem that’s not likely to go away on its own, considering the surging popularity of text messaging: Some 4 billion messages were sent daily during the first half of 2009 — nearly double the rate in 2008 — according to The Wireless Association, a trade group.

Thus far, 18 states have banned texting by all drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. An additional nine states have banned texting by novice drivers — typically defined as drivers under the age of 18, though Missouri set the bar at 21.

With so many other states taking a hands-off approach, businesses large and small are being forced to consider internal policies to protect themselves — should any of their employees be involved in a texting-related accident.

“”It really is a public safety issue rather than a corporate safety issue,”” saidDoug Winter, an attorney with Bryan Cave in Washington. “”But if the government doesn’t step up, they have to fear the possibility of lawsuits.””

Last week, AT&T announced it was launching a national public service campaign aimed curtailing texting in cars. As part of that initiative, the carrier also told its 290,000 employees that they can’t do it either.

“”We wanted to lead by example,”” saidKerry Hibbs, a spokesman for the company. “”It wouldn’t make sense for our employees to be driving and texting when we’re asking other people not to do it.””

It’s something that many companies have done, or are considering doing, for a couple of reasons. The obvious one is the protection from lawsuits. But companies also are concerned about the welfare of workers. In much the same way a company might encourage employees not to smoke, they want their workers to avoid doing dangerous activities.

It was a story about a fatal accident involving a texting teenager that promptedSylvester Chisomand his partnerArthur Shiversto enact a no-talking/no-texting rule for workers in their Showroom Shine Express Detailing shop in Normandy. Initially, it wasn’t an easy thing for their young workers to accept.

“”It seemed like we were being too bossy. But then people realized it was about safety first,”” Chisom said.

While legal experts say there’s little downside to enacting a texting ban, some companies have a stronger incentive than others. A firm with dozens of delivery trucks, for example, will have more reason to worry than one whose employees seldom leave the office.

“”Any company of significant size or with drivers on the road, they’d be foolish not to,”” saidKelly Scott, an attorney withErvin Cohen& Jessup in Beverly Hills, Calif., who specializes in employment and labor law.

Of course, sometimes you can look a little funny, even when you do.

That’s whatChuck Knollhas learned in the years following Walter Knoll Florist’s decision to eliminate texting by drivers. They still use texting to communicate with dispatchers, but they can only do it when the truck isn’t moving.

Said Knoll, “”Two or three times a month, I’ll get a call from someone saying ‘Did you know your driver is just sitting in my driveway, typing on his phone?'””

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(c) 2009, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Visit the Post-Dispatch on the World Wide Web at http://www.stltoday.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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GRAPHIC (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): texting

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on MCT Direct (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): texting

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