AT&T Chief Speaks Out Against Texting at the Wheel

According to a New York Times article published on September 19, Randall L. Stephenson, the chairman and chief executive of AT&T, spoke on Wednesday morning at a conference addressing major investors, including Fortune 500 executives. The topic was the state of the telecom businesses, but he began with a request: Don’t text and drive. Stephenson has been repeating this message at investor conferences, the annual shareholder meeting in April, in town halls and civic club meetings, and in conversations with chief executives of other major companies. AT&T is not the first or only carrier to raise awareness on this issue, but the message is starting at the top and it’s personal. Stephenson said in an interview that someone close to him caused an accident in the past while texting. The smartphone, he says, “is a product we sell and it’s being used inappropriately.” For him, that means the company he runs has to get involved in a public awareness campaign. “We have got to drive behavior.” Safety advocates say that they are particularly impressed by AT&T’s persistent and broad efforts to draw attention to the problem of texting while driving. However, history shows that public service campaigns have had limited success on safety issues like drunken driving or seat belt use unless they are paired with strong laws, something Mr. Stephenson opposes; he hopes that changing the culture can work. David D. Teater, senior director of the National Safety Council, whose son was killed by a driver talking on her phone, said he was pleased to see telecommunications companies no longer lobbying against laws aimed at curbing driver distraction caused by electronic devices. Currently, 39 states ban texting while driving. Research shows that the activity sharply increases the risk of a crash, even beyond the risk posed by someone driving with a .08 blood alcohol level. Starting on September 30, AT&T will offer a free, revised version of its DriveMode app for Android and BlackBerry phones that will automatically disable texting when the phone is traveling more than 25 miles an hour. Stephenson said the technology might eventually block phone calls to drivers. The app is part of a broader campaign called “It Can Wait” that began in 2010. Stephenson has had to curb his own behavior, too. “When I went public, I told my wife: ‘You know what this means? I can no longer touch this iPhone or BlackBerry in the car. It was a habit I had to break.” Finkelstein & Partners launched our “Commit to Quit” campaign in September 2011 with a public service radio campaign aimed at teenage drivers. As a personal injury firm, we see firsthand the devastation that distracted driving can cause. We initiated our program to speak at schools to encourage students to make the choice to not text and drive. If you want us to speak at your child’s school, please contact [email protected].

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