It was inevitable. As far back as 1997, theNew England Journal of Medicinereported that motorists are three to six times more likely to have an accident while talking on a cell phone than those who either have the decency to pull off the road or wait until they get into a crowded elevator to start yapping on the phone.

I admit that I have picked up the phone on several occasions and haphazardly dialed the number while trying to keep at least the top of my knees on the bottom of the steering wheel.

In late October, Suffolk County, NY, became the first county in the U.S. to ban the use of hand-held cell phones while operating a motor vehicle. That decision followed on the footsteps of a similar Brooklyn, OH, ban back in March 2000. The motivation for the Suffolk County law was the death of a couple, killed when their car was struck by a driver speaking on a handheld phone.

The implications of these two laws are bound to have a large, rippling effect on the service industry. The field technicians, parts drivers, and busy executives who dot the hvacr landscape can be lumped right into that group that is affected by this new turn of events.

Let’s take a moment to examine this new wrinkle.

Impact on Service Businesses

Picture your service van running the neighborhoods between calls. Your dispatcher calls your tech to give additional instructions on the next call or to divert the tech and give them alternative directions. That scenario is typical and a part of everyday business. It is routine for service people (and drivers) to communicate regularly with the home base to ensure operations are flowing smoothly.

Now let’s figure that your tech has four scheduled stops that day. You have a pretty good idea of the travel time between stops. Part of your dispatcher’s job or service manager’s job is to route the stops economically and efficiently, with as little fudge time as possible.

Now let’s say your company is on a service call in Suffolk County or Brooklyn. Did your driver remember the new law? Will he pull over to take a call on the hand-held, thus disrupting the flow and adding to the fudge time? If he doesn’t want to risk getting a ticket, he will. I’m sure you, as the contractor, will not enjoy paying a $50-$100 fine — and the ensuing boost in your insurance rate.

Let’s say the time it takes to pull over and complete the call averages about 15 minutes per day per truck. And let’s say you have ten service vans. That’s 150 minutes per day — 21¼2 hours of billable time that you are losing each day.

How do you make up for it? Add a fifth service call and increase the labor costs? Increase your hourly rate? Cut back to three calls and hope the fudge time isn’t too excessive?

Maybe I’m sending up a red flag when the flagpole hasn’t even been constructed yet. If you’re a smaller operation with one or two trucks, you may not notice much of a difference. And maybe legislation toward banning handheld cell phone usage is still years away in your community. And maybe the solution is to go with hands-free technology.

But what if you have a large service fleet and these seemingly subtle changes will have a major economic impact on your bottom line? Will time and materials turn into flat rate? Will you spend the extra money to equip each service vehicle with hands-free technology?

It may be a small ripple on the pond. But don’t be surprised if it turns into a major wave before too long.

Hall is business management editor. He can be reached at 248-244-6417; 248-362-0317 (fax); (e-mail).

Publication date: 11/06/2000