Another article on the dangers of “distracted driving”:

“The dangers of driving while talking on the phone come not from our hands or from our eyes, but from our brains,” they wrote in The Seattle Times. Simons’ research backs this up.

In one of his driving experiments at the University of Illinois’ Beckman Institute, participants drove on a simulator depicting a four-lane, divided highway. Their sole task was to follow the car in front while performing a counting task. In this case, Illinois researchers found that if drivers are distracted while simply following traffic, they instinctively give themselves a little extra space with the car in front.

“This suggests that distractions wouldn’t be as bad as long as drivers don’t have to make any decisions and provided that nothing unexpected happens,” he says.

But unexpected things do happen, and distractions like talking on the phone can make you slower to respond. Problems also arise when drivers have to make a tactical maneuver, such as passing. If drivers are being distracted in these situations, Illinois researchers found that they usually drive too close—dangerously close.

Though it’s true that unexpected things do happen, it is not the case that they happen on a random distribution. People often tend to discuss this issue in black and white terms. It’s dangerous! Don’t do dangerous things! Of course, driving is dangerous. Life is a series of tradeoffs. Rather than suggesting that people should limit their cell phone conversations to when they are in potentially hazardous situations, we have the Secretary of Transportation trying to find ways to jam the signal (thereby preventing passenger and emergency phone calls). Cause danger is danger and all that.

On the other hand, as heretical as it may sound, not only does talking on the cell phone while driving not always pose the same hazard, it’s quite possible that sometimes it can result in safer driving:

When engaged in a secondary verbal task, drivers showed improved lane-keeping performance and steering control when vigilance was lowest.

This fits entirely within my experience. Even before phoning while driving became a no-no, I found myself rather uncomfortable doing it if I was driving on unfamiliar roads, times when surrounded by cars, and/or places of frequent stop-start. On the other hand, when driving on a long stretch on a freeway with light traffic, the hazards seemed pretty minimal to me.

Something like 70% of Americans with cell phones cop to either talking on a cell or texting while driving. Unless Secretary LaHood gets his insipid signal-jammers installed in cars, it’s not something that’s going to go away any time soon. It’s my hope that most people are instinctively aware when phoning while driving is more hazardous or less. Maybe our public relations campaigns should focus on that. It’s unlikely to happen, though, because of a relatively puritanical itch that people without cell phones and those that have them but never use them in the car have. I don’t want to do it, therefore you should never. And another group of people that supports these rules but doesn’t follow them because they can handle it but those other drivers are crazy.

Keep in mind, though, that if you listen to sports in the car, or you eat in the car, you are likely similarly distracting yourself. In fact, I personally find that the same rules I used to follow for cell phone usage I follow for eating. And to a lesser extent, with audiobooks. I tend to reserve these things for the freeways.

But as the chicken littles talk about how the sky is falling, there are a few important things to remember:

First, that there are tradeoffs. The second study linked aside, maybe in a perfect world nobody would multitask behind the wheel. They wouldn’t talk on cell phones. Or eat or smoke or listen to anything. Just keep an eye on the road. Realistically, though, we spend a lot of time in our cars. Making that time more pleasant is not without its own value. Being careful is one thing, but being miserable while doing it is another.

Second: The roads have never been safer. Accidents are fewer and farther between than they have ever been. The same goes for injuries and fatalities. And for all of the dangers that cell phones are alleged to cause, all three statistics have been on the decline ever since they were first introduced. I don’t think that this is because of cell phones, but it is true regardless. So let’s stop freaking out. {h/t OTB}

Category: Road

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2 Responses to Distracted Driving

  1. ? says:

    Without disagreeing with you, I must confess to being singularly irritated on those occasions when I have had to evade another car whose driver turns out to be holding a cell phone. (Even though I am often that driver myself.) Not sure why this is. Maybe because, say, eating or sports listening are easier to conceal. Maybe because our attention to driving is more quickly restored.

  2. trumwill says:

    I get irritated to, to be honest. I think it has more to do with conspicuousness than anything.

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