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McClatchy-Tribune  03/03/2017 9:10 PM ET
Chicago Tribune Robert Reed column [Chicago Tribune]

March 03--The auto insurance industry has been raising customer premiums, citing the hikes as a necessary evil to help cover expensive claims on a growing number of car collisions involving "distracted drivers."

Smartphones, along with fancy new ways to connect with the outside world from a car, mean the problem of distracted driving is going to become a more pervasive and risky gambit for consumers and businesses. Just Thursday, General Motors said it is rolling out unlimited data plans for its cars.

On top of higher individual insurance costs, some employers -- worried about getting slapped with distracted driver-related lawsuits -- are banning their employees from using cellphones when driving for work.

More important, distracted driving is contributing to the deaths of thousands of people, many of them teenagers, and is a growing public health concern.

"The proliferation of new technology is increasing so rapidly that the ways we can be distracted are infinitely higher," says Maureen Vogel, spokeswoman for the Itasca-based National Safety Council, a nonprofit that works with 13,000 companies on safety matters. "Before we used cellphones to text or talk. Now it's updating social media, making dinner reservations and voice dictation through the dashboard."

State Farm Insurance, the country's largest auto insurer, doesn't need to click on an app to understand what the National Safety Council is talking about.

State Farm, based in Bloomington, Ill., lost a whopping $7 billion last year, with much of that attributed to claims related to distracted-driving incidents, along with some escalating medical and car repair costs.

Other insurers are bracing for trouble too.

Matt Winter, Allstate president, recently told investors the company's watching for links between smartphone use and car accident frequency. "When we look at smartphone ownership statistics and smartphone use and compare that to accident frequency, the correlation is striking," he said.

Employers are also apprehensive.

The National Safety Council is recommending companies ban the use of cellphones for employees driving during work hours.

Already, over 469 employers nationwide have adopted the cellphone embargo and more are expected to follow.

This year, Minnesota-based Cargill became one of the biggest companies to go cellphone cold turkey. Employees who break the rules could be disciplined by management.

Bosses worried the cellphone prohibition will crimp worker productivity shouldn't fret about it, says the council. It found only 1 percent of the 469 companies surveyed said the ban hurt employee productivity, even for salespeople who often use their cars as rolling offices.

Nationally, nearly 3,000 people died from distracted driving in 2014, according to the latest government transportation data.

Still, we probably don't know the full extent of the problem because distracted driver-related incidents often go underreported, experts say.

In some cases, those involved don't own up to being unfocused while driving so it doesn't make the police report. Or it may not be illegal to use a smartphone or some other device while driving, so it isn't officially documented.

Defenders of smartphones argue that distracted driving can be blamed on many other things: Fiddling with the radio, eating while driving, talking to passengers and even sprucing up by doing some personal grooming.

For sure, all that goes on.

While traveling along the Kennedy Expressway a few years ago, I saw a man driving while brushing his teeth.

I'm not sure that's illegal in Illinois, but a 2013 state law prohibits talking into a hand-held cellphone while behind the wheel. Illinois also bans texting while driving.

But you wouldn't know it when you're out on the streets.

Despite such tough measures, how many drivers do we see chatting away on cellphones or looking down to text message while in the full swing of traffic?

Maybe you are one of them. After all, who hasn't stolen a glance at an email or riffed off a text message while lurching through a bumper-to-bumper drive?

"Anecdotally, all you have to do is look around to see how big the problem is," says the safety council's Vogel.

True enough.

But it's pretty dumb.

After all, connecting with the information superhighway, while driving down a real one, can take a pretty big toll on everyone.

roreed@chicagotribune.com

 

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