August 16, 2001

Conversing on cell phones while driving can lead to significant decreases in driving performance, according to a new study reported in the August/September 2001 issue of the National Safety Council's Injury Insights. The study found that driver distractions due to cell phones can occur regardless of whether hand-held or hands-free cell phones are used, and that cell phone conversations create much higher levels of driver distractions than listening to the radio or audio books.

According to the study's authors, the findings suggest that legislative initiatives that restrict hand-held devices, but permit hands-free devices, in motor vehicles are not likely to significantly reduce driver distractions associated with cell phone conversations.

The research was conducted by David Strayer, Frank Drews, Robert Albert and William Johnston at the University of Utah. The study used 64 participants in controlled, simulated driving conditions. The research participants were randomly assigned to listen to and change radio stations, listen to audio books, engage in conversations while holding cell phones, and engage in conversations using hands-free cell phones. The subjects were presented with a series of driving tasks, such as braking for red lights, and their responsiveness and reaction time to these driving tasks were measured.

The study found that the subjects involved in phone conversations showed significantly slower responses to traffic signals and missed signals entirely much more often than subjects who were listening to the radio or a book on tape. There was no measurable difference, however, in driver responses among those subjects using hand-held phones and those using hands-free devices.

According to the authors, this indicates that the loss of responsiveness motorists experience while using cell phones is not due solely to holding or dialing a phone. The scientists concluded that it was the active engagement in a conversation that caused the higher levels of driver distraction.

The issue of driver distractions caused by cellular phones becomes increasingly important as cell phone use becomes more prevalent in American life. According to studies conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), some form of driver distraction is a contributing factor in 20 to 30 percent of all crashes. The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association estimates that there are currently 120.1 million cellular phones in operation in the United States, and a recent NHTSA survey found that nearly 75 percent of drivers reported using their phone while driving. A NHTSA observational study released last month estimated that 500,000 drivers of passenger vehicles (cars, vans, sport utility vehicles and pickups) are talking on hand-held cell phones during any given daytime moment throughout the week.

In a "Multitasking Statement" adopted by the National Safety Council in March of this year, the Council noted that "a driver's first responsibility is the safe operation of the vehicle" and that "best practice is to not use electronic devices including cell phones while driving." 

The study featured in Injury Insights is part of a larger research project conducted by the University of Utah researchers. 


OSHA has cited Sheffield Steel Corp. in Sand Springs, Okla., with 14 alleged safety and health violations and proposed penalties totaling $63,125.

Sheffield Steel Corp. is a steel mill that employs about 700 workers company-wide, 300 of which are in employed at the company's headquarters in Sand Springs.

The alleged safety violations were discovered during separate safety and health inspections that began June 5, 2001, under OSHA's Site Specific Targeting (SST) program. The SST program are inspections aimed at specific high-hazard industries. Sheffield was cited for five serious, three repeat and four other-than-serious violations.

The alleged serious violations were for unguarded floor holes, open sided platforms without handles, blocked aisles and for failing to determine confined space hazards. Employees who enter and work inside a confined space must follow a precise series of steps to control hazardous conditions before entry. A serious violation is one in which there is a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result and the employer knew or should have known of the hazard.

The alleged repeat violations were for failing to provide adequate lockout/tagout procedures, appropriate guarding of machines and blocked access to electrical disconnect boxes and circuit breakers. Lockout/tagout refers to the proper labeling and shut down of an energy source. The repeat violations were based on an inspection of a Sheffield Steel Corp. facility in Illinois, where similar violations were found. A repeat violation is one in which any standard, regulation, rule or order where, upon reinspection, a substantially similar violation is found.

The alleged other-than-serious violations were for failing to provide adequate eye protection, exit signs, and for failing to separate oxygen cylinders from fuel gas cylinders. An other-than-serious violation is a hazardous condition that would probably not cause death or serious physical harm, but would have a direct and immediate relationship to the safety and or health of the employees.

Sheffield Steel Corp. has 15 working days from receipt of the citations to either comply, request an informal conference with the Oklahoma City OSHA area director, or contest the citations and proposed penalties before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.


U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao said that 138 fewer workers died on the job in 2000 than in 1999, continuing the downward trend in work-related deaths, according to Thursday's report on fatal occupational injuries by the Bureau of Labor Statistics .

"Even one workplace fatality is too many," Chao said. "We've made a lot of progress, but this report points to where we need to do better. We want to promote compliance assistance and training to keep reducing workplace tragedies."

A total of 5,915 fatal work injuries were recorded in 2000. Work-related highway deaths dropped for the first time since 1992, and construction industry deaths declined for the first time since 1996. Fatalities in manufacturing as well as agriculture, forestry and fishing are down significantly.

Deaths among Hispanic workers, especially in construction work, grew more than their increased participation in the labor force. Labor Department officials are reaching out to these workers through targeted partnership programs in Florida and Texas and through training programs developed by grantees. "Our Department needs to do a better job of reaching out more to Hispanic workers and employers," Chao said.


A fatal accident in February at a manufacturing plant in Lubbock, Texas, has resulted in citations by the OSHA against Frito-Lay Inc. with the company agreeing to pay $57,000 in fines and abate the violations.

Frito-Lay Inc. manufactures potato chips, corn chips and other snacks at the Lubbock plant where about 193 workers are employed. Corporate offices are located in Plano, Texas.

The violations were discovered during an OSHA investigation that began Feb. 9, 2001, in response to a fatality that occurred in a confined space. The employee fell into an oil tank, while trying to make a repair, hit his head and drowned.

The company was cited for failing to implement confined space entry procedures. Employees who enter and work inside a confined space must follow a precise series of steps to control hazardous conditions before entry.