Road Warriors Should Hang It Up

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Business travelers are called "road warriors" for good reason. Even if they're flying to far-off destinations, chances are that many end up behind the wheel after leaving the airport. And no doubt, more and more business travelers are relying on their mobile handsets. A smartphone is a great device for travelers as it offers numerous location-based apps, including those for GPS navigation that can provide directions, plus offer information on local businesses.

However, cell phones aren't always put to smart use. Mobile apps likely increase the dangers of using a phone while driving. Fatalities linked to distracted driving rose from 10 percent in 2005 to 16 percent in 2009, according to a study last fall by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And hands-free mobile phone use isn't resolving the problem.

Excerpt from a BMW ad about distracted driving
Excerpt from a BMW ad about distracted driving
Holding the phone may be no more dangerous than just gabbing while driving. This is according to a newly released report by the Governors Highway Safety Association, which covered 10 years of research. It noted that mobile phone use may increase the risk of a crash. Even more worrisome, it suggested that there's "no conclusive evidence on whether hands-free cell phone use is less risky than hand-held use."

The study suggested that texting likely increases crash risk more than talking on a cell phone, and suggested that a texting ban should be considered as a countermeasure for all drivers--while a cell phone ban, including hands-free, should be considered for "novice drivers."

In fact, more than a decade ago Bluetooth offered the promise to allow users to keep walking and talking hands-free, and this has only led to increased use in the car. Part of the problem could be that users actually feel safer if they're not holding the phone to their ears. Moreover, many states have banned the use of mobile phones while driving except if hands-free. This has likely sent a message that using the phone isn't a problem unless you're actually holding it.

But even with hands-free devices, users still need to look at the handset to answer or make a call. While many cars now offer Bluetooth built-in, and there are plenty of aftermarket hands-free car kits, these options aren't of much use to the often jet-lagged road warrior who relies on a rental car.

Built-in GPS systems had become commonplace and have long been offered in rental cars, but slowly smartphones are eating away at this market. Last month GPS maker TomTom cut its 2011 outlook, citing a weak electronics market. Bluetooth is readily becoming available in higher-end rental vehicles, how many business travelers are likely to sit in the parking lot of the rental lot and set it up with their phones? If it is utilized at all, that's something travelers might attempt while driving to a destination. Talk about distracting!

Public service messages increasingly plead not to text and drive.
Public service messages increasingly plead not to text and drive.
Business travel hasn't gotten easier, even if there are seemingly endless mobile computing products available to ease the pain. These products instead put greater demands to stay in touch at all times--which explains why, as planes taxi to the gate, so many people are dialing on their iPhones, Android devices, and BlackBerries. Email is checked, text messages sent, and the Web surfed. It used to be that a business traveler would check in with the office after checking into the hotel. Now it is instant catch-up when the plane lands.

And even for the road warrior who doesn't fly but instead spends much time in their own personal car, there is a problem with mobile phone usage. A business traveler in their own car enjoys a situation of familiarity. When people are in familiar settings they feel safer, but typically no less rushed. Stuck in traffic? Good time to check email, it might seem. Stopped at a light? Plenty of time to send a text message to the office.

The truth is that road warriors, and frankly everyone else, need to hang it up. While there are always going to be distractions while driving--from fiddling with an unfamiliar radio to trying to read directions--using a handset shouldn't add another level to the mix. Studies have shown that distracted driving is dangerous driving. If you need to make a call or send a text, pull over or hang up.

Peter Suciu is a frequent business traveler and often goes through airport security with multiple mobile devices. While he absolutely avoids using his phone while in the car, he has been known to answer it while riding his bike at speeds that would be considered reckless.

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