Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Driving and Cellphones

I very much agree with this post, except for the explanation at the end:
California is considering a ban on cell phone use while driving. Hands-free phones will still be permitted. The informal and published debate about this is interesting because of a seemingly desperate desire not to believe the well-established facts, which are (1) Using a cell phone while driving is about as impairing as being just at the legal alcohol limit; (2) a handsfree phone is just as bad as a handheld one. The law should rule out any phone use while driving, and anyone doing it, legal or not, should be an object of social scorn, right up there with drunk drivers.

* * *

I find these results perfectly match my intuitive sense of how much worse I drive using a cell phone, whether or not I'm dialing it or have a hand occupied holding it up, and I have completely forsworn this behavior. What's interesting is that the handsfree option doesn't help; after all, you can safely converse with someone in your car while driving, and you can listen to the radio. I believe the problem is that a phone conversation demands your attention and response, unlike the radio, and that the person on the other end, unlike your passenger, can't see what you see through the windshield nor see your visual behavioral cues. The passenger will stop talking instinctively when something important is happening on the road, or when you tense up, but the other party on the phone can't do this.
I don't think that cell phone usage is distracting because the other party isn't able to respond to your own visual cues (approaching cars, etc.). I think it's because of this: When you're talking to a fellow passenger in person, your brain knows that the conversation is happening right in your own environment. There's no disconnect between where the conversation is occurring and where you're located.

But -- and I'm just going on introspection here -- when you have a telephone conversation, your brain imagines that you are present in some other place where the conversation is really taking place. It's as if you partially block out your current surroundings and picture yourself elsewhere. At least that's the way that my brain seems to work.


Blogger Joseph B said...

Haven't you ever had phone conversations where you were paying more attention to what was going on around you than to the phone? Maybe you were watching TV or on the computer, but you were paying more attention to that than to the person on the other end of the line. I think if you act that way while you're driving, you might not have your driving ability hindered. Maybe you just have to intentionally concentrate more on driving than on the phone.

Perhaps the reason more people don't do this is that they have driven a lot and tend to be bored by driving, so the phone conversation is more interesting, and they therefore want to pay more attention to it.

5:51 PM  
Blogger ATW said...

I would agree with your concluding paragraph. And would extend it to consider that talkng on the phone is a little like daydreaming (ie the imagining that you are somewhere else). To me it is a similar sort of distraction.

I am similarly distracted when replaying or "pre"playing events, meetings or stressful situations in my mind, sometimes even talking out aloud in these situations.

Should I then be banned from talking to myself while driving?

No, in both cases (cellphone use & daydreaming) we should apply our common sense. On a long straight highway through the desert there is little danger in either practice.

On a busy urban street (try the centre of Johannesburg) I certainly cannot afford to daydream or use my cellphone simply because I am aware that in this environment I may need to react very quickly to my surroundings. (Besides I may just have my car window smashed & cellphone grabbed - but that is another debate).

An absurd (but perhaps fairer) way of managing the risk of cellphone use while driving would be to have restrictions in certain areas or at certain times of day. Much like the varying speed restrictions which are in place - essentially premised on the risk of going too fast.

6:22 AM  
Blogger Roger Sweeny said...

Several times recently I have been driving and telling a story to a passenger, when I completely missed something outside the car that I should have noticed (fortunately, no harm to anyone).

I don't know if a cell phone would be worse.

In any case, it may be illegitimate to assume that talking to a passenger is not distracting.

3:50 PM  

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