NTSB Cell Phone Ban

Automobiles are arguably the iconic products of the 20th century. At this moment, if I had to pick, I would say that smartphones and portable computers will be the iconic product of the 21st century — at least in the early part. Perhaps over the next few decades, we will devise solutions that will allow us to safely use them at the same time, but today they are in dangerous conflict.

National Transportation Safety Board logo superimposed over heavy traffic on a highway.

Last Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board finally called for a nationwide ban on the use of cell phones and text messaging devices while driving. I may be the only one, but I welcome it.  For years we’ve heard about new laws against cell phone use while driving, but too many of those laws have been limited to hand-held phones despite studies that have shown the risk inherent with any type of distracted driving.

The problem is that too often people think of distracted driving only in terms of visual and manual distractions; those that cause you to take your eyes off the road or your hands off the wheel, such as entering a phone number or reading a text.  The dangers are obvious — even if we choose to ignore them.  If you aren’t watching the road, you aren’t going to see the traffic light turn red. If your hands aren’t on the wheel, you can’t avoid the car that’s drifted into your lane. So we convince ourselves that if we can make or answer a call or text through voice commands, we are safe (see Salvucci & Macuga,2002, for evidence otherwise). Thus most of the laws to curtail distraction are directed against hand-held devices, leaving hands-free ones exempt.

Americans, at least, routinely dismiss the dangers of cognitive distractions — those that cause you to take your mind off of what you are doing. After all, we’re a nation of multi-taskers, with the innate ability to do more than one thing at a time, right? Wrong. The work of David Kieras and David Meyer, among others, has clearly shown that attempting to multi-task — either doing more than one cognitive task at a time or switching rapidly between tasks — causes the tasks to take longer and produces more errors than focusing on one task.

So what does this mean for driving while talking on a cell phone — any cell phone? It means that when you focus on the conversation, you will have fewer mental reserves for driving. You may notice that the light has turned red, but not as quickly as you might have if you weren’t on your phone. You’ll see the car that’s drifted into your lane, but it may take your mind a fraction of a second longer to recognize the danger and respond to it. That fraction of a second may be all that you had.

You may be able to sufficiently multi-task in other aspects of your life, like checking your email while listening to the TV or writing an article. But when was the last time your computer or TV hurtled something weighing two tons at you at 50 miles an hour?

A friend of mine often calls me while he’s driving — even though I hang up on him when he does — and he argues that talking on his cell phone can’t possibly be any worse than talking to a passenger in the car. He argues that both require the same mental energy and should have the same effect on driving; so if he is allowed to talk to his passenger, he should be allowed to talk on the phone. But he is ignoring a couple of key differences between those conversations. If you are talking to a passenger and traffic suddenly gets worse, most passengers will automatically slow or stop the conversation allowing the driver to focus. The person on the other end of the cell phone has no idea what sort of traffic conditions the driver is encountering and the pace of the conversation never changes based on them. And how many times has your passenger noticed that red light or drifting car before you did? The passenger is another set of eyes and ears that can help the driver avoid accidents.

The dangers are particularly pronounced for younger drivers who have less experience behind the wheel.  The routine task of driving, for those who have years of experience, does become automatic with experience (though again, I feel the need to stress that it is the unpredictability of driving that emphasizes the need for this ban). Younger drivers — those who are also more likely to answer that text — have not reached a level of experience for those routine aspects of driving to become automatic. These drivers require active attention at all times.

Of course, not everyone is in favor of the ban. Since it was announced I have seen some articles claiming that the risks of talking on a cell phone have been dramatically overestimated. These articles cite an upcoming study in the January issue of Epidemiology by Richard Young, Ph.D., which examined potential biases in a couple of influential studies. Those studies looked at the cell phone records of people involved in accidents and compared their cell phone use just prior to the accident to that from other time periods. I’ve not had the opportunity to read this article; however, even if the dangers have been overestimated based on these two studies, this does not negate the body of evidence that shows that hands-free cell phone conversations are no safer than those using a hand-held device in terms of cognitive distraction (Young & Regan, 2007).

Many of the designers here believe that eventually innovations in cell phones and automobiles will resolve this issue, allowing us to drive and stay connected. Perhaps navigation assist systems will solve the problems — or phones that only allow conversation when there are lulls in traffic. But in the meantime, cell phones and automobiles are not playing well together.

Just a quick update to this story.  As of 12:01 tomorrow morning (3/8/2012) a new state law will go into effect making it illegal to text message, instant message, or email while driving in PA. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/12067/1214921-147.stm.

Young, K. &  Regan, M. (2007). Driver distraction:  A review of the literature. In: I.J. Faulks, M. Regan, M. Stevenson, J.Brown, A. Porter & J.D. Irwin  (Eds.). Distracted driving. Sydney, NSW: Australasian College of Road Safety. Pages 379-405.

Salvucci, D. &  Macuga, K. (2002). Predicting the effects of cellular-phone dialing on driver performance. Cognitive Systems Research, 3, 95-102.

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Featured image by prvideotv | Pixabay License superimposed with Public Domain image of NTSB seal