Policy limiting cell-phone use proposed for city employees

1:56 PM, Dec 11, 2008   |    comments
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City Risk Manager Lance Murray confirmed the plan on Wednesday, saying the possibility of a lawsuit weighed heavily on city officials' minds.

"All it takes is one," he said.

Murray said the city's safety group for the past month has been discussing the issue and had initially settled on a recommendation that city workers avoid cell-phone use while driving.

But on Wednesday, he said, the city's top managers decided banning cell-phone use needed to be a formal policy.

The push to implement such a policy comes 15 days after a Fort Collins woman struck a 9-year-old girl riding her bike home from school. Police said the woman was distracted by her cell phone when she hit Erica Forney, who died from her injuries on Thanksgiving.

Murray said other cities and states have banned all drivers from using cell phones or required them to use hands-free devices. He said it's too early to tell if the laws will reduce crashes, but he said this is a good opportunity to remind drivers of their obligations.

"When you are driving, you should be driving," Murray said. "We're trying to be proactive. At some point in time, this will become law."

Murray said the plan is not yet completely defined but would likely exempt two-way radios so police officers and road crews, for instance, could still talk to dispatchers.

He said no decisions have been made about whether the ban would apply to police officers' mobile phones and Blackberries. Police officers also have laptops in their vehicles; it's unclear whether the policy would affect their use.

Murray said the cell- phone ban is similar to the city's requirement that workers wear helmets while riding a bike on city business, such as commuting between meetings.

Other area employers have similar restrictions. Gannett, which owns the Coloradoan, for instance bars workers from using cell phones while driving.

Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, said he had no easy way of telling if any other cities and towns have similar policies.

Many East Coast states restrict drivers from using cell phones. On July 1, California implemented a law requiring drivers to use a hands-free device, such as a headset while talking behind the wheel.

Forney died just days before the University of Utah released the findings of a study indicating drivers talking on a cell phone are "far more distracted" than drivers having a conversation with someone in the vehicle.

David Strayer, a professor of psychology at Utah, said the study was conducted for drivers traveling in cars at speeds ranging from 25 to 40 mph for city driving and 50 to 70 mph for highway driving.

"We found similar difficulties with vehicle control and increased crash risk in all cases," Strayer said.

Previous studies by Strayer and his colleagues have indicated that talking on a cell phone while driving is just as dangerous as driving a car with a blood alcohol content of .08, which is the legal limit for driving under the influence.

"Cell-phone conversations were every bit as distracting as someone who was drunk," Strayer said, adding that both acts made drivers four times more likely to be in an accident than those not intoxicated or on their cell phones.

Last week, State Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, said cell phone use while driving is approaching the level of drunken driving.

"We place a great deal of emphasis on drunk driving, and I don't believe cell phones reach quite that level of endangerment, but it may be getting close," Bacon said.

A previous study by Utah's Strayer found driving while talking on a hands-free device is just as dangerous as driving while on a handheld device.

(Copyright Associated Press, All Rights Reserved)

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