With new research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Arlington, Va., finding that drivers using cell phones are four times more likely to get in a crash serious enough to injure themselves, auto insurers are beginning to educate drivers about the risks of driving while talking on cell phones.Dan Cohen, a spokesperson for 21st Century Insurance Group, says the study underscores the need for insurance companies to encourage their clients not to drive and call at the same time.

"That is the call to action-the fact that such a huge number of accidents are related to preventable behavior," he says.

To encourage drivers not to use cell phones, Woodland Hills, Calif.-based 21st Century began a "Just Drive" campaign, with billboards addressing cell phone use and other driving distractions. The billboards depict drivers eating, using portable electronic devices, reading, applying makeup, and shaving.

They show cartoon drivers talking on cell phones or putting on lipstick, and have headlines reading, "World's most dangerous phone booth," "World's riskiest restaurant" and "World's deadliest office."

Cohen says 21st Century is using humor to express a serious point and raise awareness about the risks of driving while distracted. "The idea is just to try to help people make good choices," he says.

The billboards are rotated along roads in California, Arizona, Texas and Illinois. In some places, 21st Century has partnered with law enforcement officials to stop distracted driving, says Cohen. For example, in California, both California Highway Patrol and 21st Century logos are on the billboards.

"Public law enforcement agencies see the result of driving in a distracted manner, so they're always looking for partners to raise awareness," Cohen adds.

Ubiquitous technology

What's more, cell phones have become ubiquitous. Verizon Wireless, Bedminster, N.J., has 47 million customers, according to the company's Web site. And Ontario-based Research In Motion, announced in June the total number of wireless BlackBerry subscribers, many of whom use the mobile device's e-mail and cell phone features, was approximately 3 million.

Nonetheless, not all auto carriers are actively pursuing a formal education program.

Kathy Bell, a spokesperson for Progressive Casualty Insurance Co., Mayfield Village, Ohio, told Insurance Networking News that she was not aware of any programs in place to encourage the carrier's 13 million customers not to use cell phones.

But State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., Bloomington, Ill., does address the topic, encouraging clients who come to safety day information events not to drive and call at the same time, says Mia Jazo Harris, a State Farm spokesperson. Harris says accidents caused by distracted driving definitely has affected State Farm's claims record.

While Cohen does not have projections of how many auto insurance claims were related to cell phone use, he says the IIHS research made it clear that this is a topic that needs to be addressed by insurance companies.

"From an awareness standpoint, I think the case is pretty clear," he says.

In the IIHS study, which analyzed the cell phone records of drivers treated in emergency rooms between 2002 and 2004, age and gender did not make a difference in the likelihood of a crash, and 75% of crashes occurred in clear weather. The report also noted that, contrary to public opinion, using a hands-free phone did not reduce the risk of injury.

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