Cell Phones: When Common Courtesy and the Law Intersect

Posted July 9, 2009 in Consumer Law by

The other day I was driving my car and came to a four-way stop sign. The vehicle that had the right of way–a woman in an SUV–drove slowly into the intersection, then came to a halt. It wasn’t obvious why she’d stopped, until I took a closer look at her: The woman was talking on a cell phone, engrossed in her conversation, and oblivious to the fact that she was blocking traffic. Not only was her behavior unsafe and illegal in Chicago, where I live, but it was also rude!

July is National Cell Phone Courtesy Month. It’s sad, when you think about it, but we’ve become such slaves to our cell phones that we often act in ways that are rude, thoughtless and unsafe. Somewhere along the way, it became commonly accepted that cell phone calls take precedence over everything else: safe driving, job responsibilities and other people’s comfort. Legislators and courts have had to step in, making laws to regulate what should be common sense and courtesy.

Here are some examples of instances where common-courtesy and the law intersect.

Employers have the legal right to ban employees from making personal phone calls during working hours, or to limit employees to emergency calls only. If you violate employment policies, your employer can use it as cause to fire you. (And if you work in an at-will state or without a contract, your employer can fire you for no reason at all.) If you’re using your cell phone for personal reasons at work, you’re essentially stealing from the company and violating a basic rule of workplace ethics. Courtesy dictates: Even if your employer doesn’t have a rule specifically governing the use of personal cell phones, don’t text or make personal calls during working hours.

You can be kicked off an airplane for failing to obey crew member instructions, including failing to follow the request to turn off and put away cell phones. In addition, other businesses can ask customers to leave their premises for talking on a cell phone. Airlines and businesses can do this because companies have the legal right to refuse to serve customers, provided those reasons are not discriminatory. Courtesy dictates: When in a small enclosed area, such as a store or airplane, turn off the cell phone. Other people don’t want to listen to your personal or work conversations.

Schools can ban students from using cell phones during school hours. As recently as last year, New York courts have upheld the right of the New York City public school system to ban students from using cell phones during school hours. Schools argue that a ban on cell phones is no different than a ban on certain types of clothing, drugs or weapons (and helps reduce the risk of cheating). Courtesy dictates: It’s rude to make calls or send text messages when you should be paying attention to another person, such as a teacher.

Many states and some cities have banned drivers from talking on a hand-held phone while operating a motor vehicle. Other states have banned young or inexperienced drivers from any cell phone use while driving, and some states are implementing texting bans while driving. Not surprisingly, some studies indicate that hands-free devices do not reduce the rate of cell phone-related driving accidents. Other studies show that people who use a cell phone while driving are as distracted as people who drive under the influence of alcohol. Common sense dictates: If you must talk on the phone while driving, you should pull your car to the side of the road or pull into a parking lot while talking.

The use of hand-held cell phones while driving is banned in:

  • Arkansas (young drivers only)
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Louisiana
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Utah
  • Washington

In addition, the following states have laws limiting or banning young or novice drivers from using cell phones while driving:

  • Arkansas (effective Oct. 1, 2009)
  • California
  • Colorado (effective Dec. 1, 2009)
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kansas (effective Jan. 1, 2010)
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Nebraska
  • New Jersey
  • North Carolina
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia

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