Friends don't let friends mix phone calls with driving.

Aw, c'mon, don't be such a killjoy. Let your drivers have a few belts while making their rounds on service calls or jobsite runs. It would help their working days fly by faster!

I'm kidding, of course. Nobody in his right mind would grant permission for employees to consume alcohol while driving on company time. Yet, most of us turn a blind eye to a practice that's just as dangerous.

A 1997 study by the New England Journal of Medicine found that drivers who talk on a cell phone are four times more likely to get into an accident than drivers who don't. That's about the same ratio racked up by drunk drivers. Research coming out of the University of Utah last year found that when motorists age 18-25 talk on cell phones, their reaction times slow down to that of people in the 65-74 age group - but without a half-century of driving experience to help compensate. Numerous other studies verify a correlation between cell phones and vehicle accidents.

Academic studies aside, common sense tells us that phone conversations reduce concentration on the road ahead. Think of how many times you've observed a motorist doing something stupid while gabbing away. Furthermore, highway safety officials are stumped to explain why road fatalities have inched upward in recent times after decades of steady decline due to better roads, safer vehicles and DUI crackdowns. Cell phones are a likely culprit.

True Confessions

Let's fess up. Almost all of us have talked on the phone while driving, haven't we? One study shows that some 85 percent of cell phone users have done so, and many make a habit of it. I suspect contractors are among the worst offenders. You folks never seem to be without a phone within arm's reach, and it's hard to spend more than a few minutes in your presence without it ringing. Contractors are about the busiest people I know in the business world, and with all the time pressure and traffic congestion you face, it seems such a waste not to make productive use of windshield time.

I've done it myself way too many times, although I'm making a conscious effort to stop. It's not easy to break the habit. When your phone rings, the urge is powerful to answer then and there. If something crosses the mind while driving, it's instinctive to communicate it before it slips away. Everything seems urgent in today's hectic business world. We just need to get it through our heads that it wasn't so long ago when cell phones didn't exist, yet our work still got done.

Also making it harder to quit is the fact that yakking while driving isn't against the law in most places. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2003 some 17 states had passed laws restricting cell phone use while driving. However, most if not all of those laws permit hands-free phone operation, which the wireless industry is heavily promoting.

While this sounds like a reasonable compromise, many safety experts think hands-free chit-chat may actually make things worse. The physical act of dialing and receiving calls takes only a few seconds and probably is associated with a tiny percentage of accidents. The main trouble comes with loss of concentration during extended and sometimes emotional phone conversations. This doesn't change with hands-free phones, and the danger may even increase because people get a false sense of security while their minds wander from the road.

The American Automobile Association estimates that about half of the 6 million annual car crashes in this country are related to driving distractions. It's hard to say how many of those are due to phone calls as opposed to eating, grooming, fiddling with the radio and so on, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently found that 8 percent of drivers were using cell phones during daylight hours.

Corporate Liability

Exxon Mobil pioneered a safety policy that prohibits employees and contract workers from using cellular phones while driving on company time. The oil giant says that this amounts to around 1.5 million miles per day of road time. That's a huge amount of experience, and apparently enough to put two and two together between cell phone use and crashes.

Many other major corporations are coming around to cell phone restrictions while driving. Policies commonly require personnel to pull over and stop before making or receiving calls. A 2004 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 40 percent of responding companies had a cell phone policy in place, and another 12 percent expected to develop one within six months.

Watch for that pace to speed up, because word is getting around of megabucks lawsuits stemming from cell phone driving accidents. One involved a $30 million settlement by a San Francisco law firm - poetic justice - after one of its lawyers killed a 15-year-old kid while making a business call.

Cell phone restrictions have been slow to take hold in the business world because their use is not widely perceived as dangerous, or if so, only when someone else is doing it. You and I, of course, have mastered the manual and mental dexterity required to simultaneously talk on the phone and steer tons of metal through countless hazards while zooming fast enough to turn human flesh into goo. It's always the other guy who doesn't have his act together.

This cavalier mentality about cell phones resembles that of an earlier era when bars were filled with yokels bragging about how much liquor they could consume and still steer their cars home. A rising toll of highway mayhem led to a change in cultural attitudes. Now, in most social circles it is distinctly unfashionable to get behind a wheel while smashed. “Friends don't let friends drink and drive,” goes the familiar slogan of a national ad campaign, and many friends take it seriously.

It's time for a similar social revolution that looks down on mixing phone calls with driving. Keep in mind that it's not necessary to ban cell phones in transit entirely, just to insist that drivers pull off the road and park before using the phone. I'm doing my tiny part with this article to bring about such a revolution. How about doing yours with a company policy that prohibits cell phone use while behind the wheel of a moving vehicle?