U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is urging drivers to put down their cell phones and other distractions while behind the wheel. Picture courtesy of the Transportation Department.

If you need to reach an employee of CMF Inc., don’t be surprised if you have to leave a message and wait a little while for a call back.

Unlike other companies, where multitasking service technicians and project estimators are constantly returning phone calls while driving to jobsites, Paul Jones, safety director for the Orange, Calif., sheet metal contractor, prefers his employees focus on one thing: driving.

“Our policy is you don’t use your cell phone while you’re in a company vehicle,” Jones said. “Period.”

It’s the kind of policy that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood would probably approve of. For the past year, the secretary has been on a mission to curb the national “epidemic” of distracted driving, which contributed to the deaths of 5,500 motorists in 2009, according to government statistics.

In September, LaHood convened the second “distracted driving summit” in Washington, D.C., to focus the nation’s attention on the issue. The event showcased people who had lost family members to drivers who were texting or talking on a cell phone behind the wheel, and urged state and federal politicians to take up the cause.

“Every single time someone takes their focus off the road, even if just for a moment, they put their lives and the lives of others in danger,” LaHood said. “Distracted driving is unsafe, irresponsible, and, in a split second, its consequences can be devastating. There’s no call or e-mail so important that it can’t wait.”

Hands-on, phone down

The secretary says his goal is to get drivers to put their smart phones and iPods away while they’re in their cars. He’s endorsed a national distracted-driving law that would penalize states that don’t crack down on the practice - especially texting. LaHood is hoping to change the social acceptance of cell phone use while driving much in the same way that drunk driving became taboo over the last 25 years.

LaHood has lent his support to a group, FocusDriven, modeled on Mothers Against Drunk Driving, to highlight the issue, and started a website,www.distraction.gov, devoted to it.

CMF implemented its cell phone use policy in summer 2008 to coincide with a new California state law that banned mobile phone use by drivers unless the phone is attached to a headset or other hands-free device. The law is a primary offense, meaning motorists can be pulled over for disobeying it even if they are otherwise driving safely.

But unlike California’s law, CMF’s policy also prohibits employees from using a hands-free device behind the wheel.

“I still think it (a hands-free device) distracts you. I just do,” Jones said.

The National Safety Council agrees. In March, it released a white paper on why using a cell phone connected to a hands-free device is still risky. It cites National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studies that say 11 percent of motorists are on a cell phone at any given time, and its own data says cell phone use is involved in a quarter of all vehicle crashes.

‘Tunnel vision'

The NSC says cell phone-using drivers - whether using a hands-free device or not - tend to have a sort of “tunnel vision” where they see but do not process up to half of the information their eyes take in. The result is a serious reduction in the ability to respond to the type of unexpected situations drivers in traffic encounter daily.

But changing what has become such an ingrained, widespread practice among drivers over the last 15 years won’t be so easy, many experts say. That’s reflected in the laws that have been passed on the issue so far: About 30 states have banned texting while driving, most in just the last few years. But only eight ban use of handheld cell phones. And no state bans all cell use behind the wheel - something LaHood endorses. Surveys show that almost all cell phone owners use their devices while driving, at least occasionally.

LaHood said he doesn’t like GPS navigation systems and much of the other hands-free technology that automakers have installed in cars in recent years, chiding them for increasing the chances of causing “cognitive impairment,” even if drivers’ hands stay on the wheel.

“Features that pull drivers’ hands, eyes, and attention away from the road are distractions. Period,” LaHood said.

Many HVAC contractors are taking notice. A recent poll on Snips’ website,www.snipsmag.com, found that 55 percent of those who responded said their company had a policy on the use of cell phones or other electronic devices while driving. The survey did not ask what the policy was.

Industry responding

Mike McCullion, safety and health director for the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association, said the group’s safety committee discussed the issue earlier this year and drafted a model distracted-driving policy for member companies to adopt. The policy covers the use of cell phones and similar electronic devices. It recommends such items be banned while operating a vehicle.

Jones said CMF workers did not complain much when the cell phone policy was implemented, although he added that compliance is probably not 100 percent.

“For the most part, they understand it,” he said.

The Air Conditioning Contractors of America is another industry association where the issue of distracted driving has been under discussion. Charlie McCrudden, the vice president of government affairs for the ACCA, said Federated Insurance, which insures many member companies, is drafting guidelines to deal with the issue.

“Obviously it’s a concern,” McCrudden said. “No contractor wants to see their premiums go up because of a preventable accident.”

Some critics have said LaHood is focusing too much on the use of cell phones when there are many other things drivers do daily that can be similarly dangerous - a point also made by McCullion.

“There’s the radio, eating, drinking, smoking,” he said, adding that it may be impossible to regulate all distracting activities.

“I think you have to take a common-sense approach,” he said.

The transportation secretary said he has been pleased with the attention the issue has garnered so far.

“I can’t think of another safety issue in American history that’s gained so much traction in such a short period of time,” LaHood said. “But we still haven’t solved the problem. Not by a long shot.”

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.