Just Turn Off Your Phone!

T’is the season and all of that, so I’ll begin by noting that last year my husband gave my mother a hands-free cell phone kit. I thought the gift was motivated by a concern about her tendency to talk on the phone when she’s making the 90 minute trip to and from our house, but maybe the gift was more nefarious than I realized. Last week’s Economist is reporting on a study that shows even hands-free phones can dangerously impair driving skills:

Melina Kunar of the University of Warwick, in England, and Todd Horowitz of the Harvard Medical School ran a series of experiments in which two groups of volunteers had to pay attention and respond to a series of moving tasks on a computer screen that were reckoned equivalent in difficulty to driving. One group was left undistracted while the other had to engage in a conversation about their hobbies and interests using a speakerphone . . . . Those who were making the equivalent of a hands-free call had an average reaction time 212 milliseconds slower than those who were not. That, they calculate, would add 5.7 metres (18 feet) to the braking distance of a car travelling at 100kph (62mph). The researchers also found that the group using the hands-free kit made 83% more errors in their tasks than those who were not talking.

To try to understand more about why this was, they tried two further tests. In one, members of a group were asked simply to repeat words spoken by the caller. In the other, they had to think of a word that began with the last letter of the word they had just heard. Those only repeating words performed the same as those with no distraction, but those with the more complicated task showed even worse reaction times—an average of 480 milliseconds extra delay. This, the researchers suggest, shows that when people have to consider the information they hear carefully, as they might when making decisions about a business deal, it can impair their driving ability significantly.

Different studies have suggested that two other driving past-times—chatting with passengers and listening to the radio—do not have the same negative effects on driving. Researchers speculate that talking on the phone competes for the brain’s resources in ways that these other activities do not.

All of this raises some interesting legal questions. As The Economist points out, rules prohibiting the use of hands-free cell phones would be extremely difficult to enforce, in part because an increasing number of vehicles come equipped with such devices. (I suppose that this complicating factor could be addressed by regulation, at least prospectively.)

But the truly vexing legal problem is the extent to which using a hands-free phone and driving have become socially acceptable. Even use of a hands-on cell phone while driving in a jurisdiction that prohibits such behavior may be what Professor Mark Edwards would label within the parameters of acceptable deviance.

To wit, I read the Economist piece about a week ago and have been waiting to find a spare moment to post about it. The other day I was driving and mentally sketching out what I wanted to write. In the middle of my machinations, I used my (hands-on) cell phone to call work and check my messages. I had no particular reason to think that I had a message and, in any event, no-one has ever left a truly urgent message on my work phone. The use of a hands-on phone may or may not have been legal in the state I was driving though; I had no idea and didn’t particularly care. And, no, the irony of the call was not lost on me.

The most important question going forward is how to make driving and using a cell phone feel more like getting behind the wheel after having a few drinks than like speeding on an open highway. We’ve managed to achieve similar change before, with drunk driving, smoking, and other negative behaviors. It’s not an impossible task, but it’s certainly not easy.

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2 Responses

  1. Howard Wasserman says:

    Your point about studies suggesting that talking with passengers or listening to (and, let’s face, it, talking back to) the radio is different and not as distracting, if true strikes me as the key. My non-empirical assumption long has been that a live conversation was the same as a telephone conversation once the issue of not having both hands on the wheel was taken out of the equation.

  2. Matt says:

    On why chatting w/ passengers doesn’t cause as much trouble as talking on the phone does, the story I’ve heard (it’s probably mostly speculation but seems plausible enough to me) is that two things (at least) are in play. First, it’s easier to talk w/ someone near by whose reactions you can see, tone hear more easily, you see what they are talking about, etc. So, it just takes less concentration. Secondly, the other person is often also looking at the road and so tends to stop talking, or at least pause, if there’s a difficult situation (increasing traffic, hard turns, rain, etc.) in a way that someone on a cell phone cannot. In general I agree, though, that we ought to use public service campaigns to encourage people to see what a dangerous (and selfish!) activity it is.