Dialing and driving banned at AMEC

Michael Jolliffe is an addict – and until recently, he put his life, as well as the lives of those around him, at risk every time he got into his car. That’s because his drugs of choice are his cellphone and BlackBerry, and Jolliffe can’t go very long without having a fix – that is, without picking up the devices to check for messages.

Until recently, when Jolliffe drove from one end of town to the other to get to and from his office, his attention wasn’t always on the road. Instead, he viewed the time as the perfect opportunity to make phone calls. In the morning, he’d talk to co-workers in Europe, in the afternoon, the Oakville, Ont.-based VP, who lives in Richmond Hill, Ont., would speak to his counterparts on the west coast.

But now, thanks to a new company directive, Jolliffe, vice-president of government relations and communications for the products management engineering company AMEC, has put his cellphone and BlackBerry put away during his 150 kilometres of daily driving.

It’s a wise move, considering that a recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Perth, Australia, found that motorists who use cellphones while driving are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. Furthermore, the study, which was released in July, found that the type of phone used didn’t make a difference to injury crash risk – which means that hands-free phones aren’t necessarily the trick to driver safety.

It wasn’t easy for Jolliffe to put his BlackBerry and cellphone away when he was in the car. At first, he says, he had to lock them away in his briefcase and then put the briefcase into his trunk.

“That was the only way to do it.”

The switch required a change in his behaviour. Now when Jolliffe has to go into a meeting, he arrives early and checks and responds to his messages before the meeting starts. And before getting into his car for a long drive, he checks his messages. If there’s a call scheduled for when he’s on the road, he no longer takes it as he’s driving. He pulls into a coffee shop parking lot, gets a cup and sits in his parked car to make the call.

The directive hasn’t changed his ability to take phone calls or talk to clients, he says. “You’re just changing your habits. There’s a time to do your calls, there’s a time to return your e-mail, and that’s not when you’re in the car.”

The changes have had some side benefits, Jolliffe says.

“Now, I get a chance to listen to the CDs I never used to listen to.”

Changing expectations
Jolliffe’s change was necessitated by a new company policy restricting employees at AMEC from using handheld communications devices while on the road.

When Randy Plener, the company’s Toronto-based vice-president of safety, health and environment first presented the idea to employees, he admits that not everyone was pleased. “There were some people in the beginning who felt it was not the right way to go,” he says.

They wondered how they’d get their job done if they could no longer talk on the phone while driving.

“It was a routine, that’s the way they’d done it.”

For others, the directive was a welcome relief. Though they didn’t like the idea of talking and driving, they felt it was an unwritten requirement – that they had to be reachable at all times and return phone calls and messages regardless of where they were.

Now, Plener says, employees feel the expectation is no longer there and that it’s OK for them to keep their eyes only on the road when in their car – and miss a few phone calls in the process.

The policy, of course, is self-monitoring, Plener says.

Initially, some people struggled with the policy – they found it hard to change their habits and be away from a much-loved means of communications. With the help of other employees, AMEC came up with a list of tips to help its workers make the transition.

The advice included incorporating “I’m either in a meeting or driving” into a cellphone’s outgoing voice mail and reminding users that stoplights are not a safe place to make calls or send text messages.

Plener hopes to change people’s habits. “I’m not naive enough to think everyone is embracing this.” But he hopes that by sending out constant reminders, people will eventually change their routines.

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