As a social worker for a nonprofit, I am required to carry a cell phone with me. Sometimes my supervisor calls me when I am driving. If I don't answer the call, she might think I'm shopping instead of working. However, I am concerned about whether I can be a safe driver while talking on the cellphone. Can I refuse to answer calls while driving without being reprimanded? -- Not Chatty Cathy
Dear Not Chatty Cathy:
You should let your supervisor know that you cannot safely drive while talking on your handheld cell phone. If she gives you some push back, you should tell her that if you have an accident while talking on your cell phone, the employer can be held liable for any injuries that occur. You can tell her about a tragic accident in Virginia in which an employee attorney who was driving while discussing work issues on her cell phone accidentally ran over a young woman in a crosswalk. The woman died and her parents sued the employee personally for $2 million and her employer for $30 million. Since the case settled, no on knows how much was paid out, but it certainly could be enough to bankrupt a nonprofit. The Virginia case is not an isolated incident. In New York, an injured pedestrian sued an employee who ran a red light while making a work call. This case was settled for about $500,000, still a chunk of change for a nonprofit. Tell your employer about the risk your group takes when employees make work calls while driving and ask if your employer has a cell phone policy (we recommend a Zero Cell Phone Use While Driving policy).
Federal law does not prohibit talking on a cell phone while driving. However, some states have enacted laws that prohibit driving while using a handheld phone and require the use of a hands-free phone set if talking while driving. These states include California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, New York and Washington. Other states have restricted the use of handheld cell phones by bus, van and other types of drivers.
Even cities and counties have passed local restrictions on the use of handheld sets while driving. The jury is still out in many states that are collecting data on the correlation between handheld cell phones and accidents in preparation for legislative action. Check your state law and local ordinances. Even if your state does not regulate "talking while driving", let your employer know that this is a workplace safety issue which puts the employer at risk.