Cell Phone Companies Ignored Risks

Date: December 8, 2009

“Can your secretary take dictation at 55 MPH?” That’s the headline of a 1984 cell phone advertisement.

The cellular phone pictured is larger than many desk phones, complete with a full-size, corded handset. Yet, the ad calls the device “perfect” for making calls from the road, and actually suggests using it while barreling down the highway at top speed.

When mass marketing of cell phones began in 1983, manufacturers had no problem calling the devices “car phones” and promoting their use while driving. The strategy helped build a $150 billion industry. But what was the price?

According to The New York Times, by 2007 an estimated 11 percent of drivers were talking on cell phones at any given time – and these distracted drivers were causing up to 2,600 fatal crashes, plus 570,000 injury accidents, each year.

But, even as study after study warned of the risks and states tried to pass laws, the cell phone industry stood in the way. Manufacturers consistently opposed any effort to ban cell phone use while driving. (Only recently have they started to change their stance.)

For instance, in 2001, California legislators tried to limit drivers’ cell phone use to hands-free devices. Sounds reasonable, right?

But AT&T, Sprint, and Cingular lobbyists raised every possible objection. They claimed that research did not show cell phone use was a major cause of crashes. They said cell phones were unfairly being singled out from other kinds of distractions like eating. They said cell phones were vital emergency tools for drivers. They even said the legislation did not adequately define a “hands-free device.” According to The New York Times, that led one legislator to question why the very people who made the devices suddenly didn’t know what they were.

Although the cell phone industry no longer actively opposes such limits, they still haven’t fully acknowledged the risks. As of 2009, their stance is “neutral.”

Steve Largent, head of cell phone industry trade group CTIA, told The New York Times, “We’re not saying anything about [cell phone use while driving]. We’re going to let our consumers make their voices heard.”

On January 12, 2009, a CTIA announcement blasted the National Safety Council’s support for a total ban of cell phone use while operating a vehicle, insisting, “We believe that safe, sensible, and limited use of a cell phone when you’re behind the wheel is possible.” CTIA also suggested a better way to deal with the problem: public service announcements.

Critics say cell phone makers are still working to promote the use of cell phones in cars, including live traffic apps for the iPhone, and new commercials showing drivers using their smartphones to access the Internet. Why? Perhaps for the same reason they promoted car phones in 1984: It’s good business. Indeed, targeting drivers has been an incredibly successful marketing strategy.

But what about the risks? Could it be that the companies never knew? If they did know, when did they find out?

According to the Times, they could have listened to Martin Cooper. The developer of the first portable cell phone, in testimony before a Michigan state commission, stated clearly, “There should be a lock on the dial, so that you couldn’t dial while driving.”

That testimony was delivered in the early 1960s.

So, is it possible that cell phone companies were innocently unaware of the risks, up until very recently? We can’t speak for anyone in the industry. But looking at history from the standpoint of an average consumer, it seems pretty clear that the risks were known. Unfortunately, these risks were not fully acknowledged in the 1960s, or in 1984, or even today.