Monday, July 27, 2009


Driven to distraction

In Driven to Distraction: Drivers and Legislators Dismiss Cellphone Risks, the New York Times tells us of Christopher Hill, of Oklahoma City. Last September, at the age of 20, Mr Hill hit an SUV at 45 miles per hour and killed its driver... because, as he freely admitted, he was using his cell phone and didn’t see the red traffic light.

Later, a policeman asked Mr. Hill what color the light had been. “I never saw it,” he answered.

Despite that “[e]xtensive research shows the dangers of distracted driving,” despite that “[s]tudies say that drivers using phones are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers,” people continue to use their phones, hand-held or hands-free. They make voice calls, they text. They use other devices — CD players, MP3 players, GPS systems, and others — that seriously distract them from driving. Those distractions often result in horrific collisions that would never have happened if the drivers involved had been, well, driving, rather than playing with their electronics.

We’ve always had distractions in the car. Parents have dealt with their children, people have fiddled with the radio, smokers have lit cigarettes while driving for decades. But it’s just getting progressively worse as we adapt more technology to the car. More, and smaller technology.

Remember when the car radio had a large button to turn it on and change the volume, and six large buttons to select predetermined radio stations? Compare that to finding a CD (do you find the writing as small and hard to read as I do?), taking it out of its case, ejecting the CD that’s already in the player, putting it somewhere, and inserting the new one into a narrow slot. You may well have crashed before you found the “eject” button. And scrolling through songs on a minuscule iPod screen, or entering an address with the touch-screen of your navigation system may be even more challenging to attention that should be given to the road and the traffic around you.

Then here’s another thing: the studies don’t just show that handling the cell phone is dangerous. Sure, when you have to look at the phone to enter a phone number or find someone in your address book, you’re especially vulnerable. But even with a hands-free system and voice calling, just having a conversation on the phone is dangerous — almost the same danger, whether you’re holding the phone or not.

Having a conversation with someone who is not present, it turns out, is what’s far, far more distracting than you imagine. Partly, it’s that a passenger who’s present can help keep a watch, and will at the very least adjust the conversation to allow for traffic issues. And partly, it’s that talking with someone who isn’t there is cognitively different, engaging brain functions that need to be focused on the task of guiding your one-ton hunk of metal safely through the obstacle course around you.

And yet, the denial continues:

“It’s not as if you are going to be able to take this away from people,” [Joe Berry, Ford’s director of business and product development] said of phones and other devices in cars. “They simply won’t give it up.”

Mr. Berry compared the situation to eating unhealthy foods. “We, as people, don’t want to stop doing things that aren’t in our best interest,” he said.

Well, yes, but, you see, if you stuff yourself with doughnuts, and fried cheese dipped in mayonnaise, you aren’t going to suddenly become a missile capable of taking out a hapless family two lanes over.[1] If you want to eat yourself into your grave, that may be sad, but it doesn’t affect random victims on the road. This is very different.

You are going to take this away from people, if you can get legislators with the backbone to do what has to be done and executives to enforce the laws. They key is to stop listening to the whining about what people want to do, and to start holding them accountable for what’s not safe. People want to speed, too, and people do. But that doesn’t stop us from passing laws against it and giving out speeding tickets, does it?

[1] Unless, of course, you should have a major MI while you were driving, but the timing isn’t likely to play out that way.


The Ridger, FCD said...

I'm trying to figure out how you fine someone for listening to a cd... or using a GPS. I agree that fumbling around with either of those while you're driving is a distraction, but getting instructions or listening to music to keep you awake? Especially if you only program it before you leave or at rest stops - or don't change the disc while driving?

Barry Leiba said...

Forgetting, for the moment, the odd aspects of traffic court, I think what you do is fine them for "distracted driving", or some such, based on observed behaviour. The police officer sees you drifting into the next lane, and perhaps sees you fiddling with a CD case. Something like that. Just as you can be ticketed if the officer sees you with a mobile phone in your hand.

Far harder is ticketing you for talking on a hands-free phone (how does the officer know, if she can't see you holding the phone?) and that may be one reason no one is trying to work against that, specifically.

Listening to music to keep you awake is a fine thing. Pull over to change the disc, and don't get so into the music that you lose attention to the driving.

Maggie said...

In my town just a few years ago a man was killed changing a tire when a kid slammed into him. The kid was fiddling with his CD player.

And I agree completely that there is a cognitive difference between holding a conversation with a person in the car who is there (WHO IS ALSO A DRIVER and also who is not pontificating or self-centered and not paying any attention to your driving), and talking with a person on the phone. We all need to have the sense to drive while we're driving, that's the problem. When my children were little, if they would start to fight in the car, I'd pull over. It was just too distracting to deal with them and also drive. And they hated that, so it had the bonus of making the fighting stop b/c the last thing they wanted was to be strapped into a carseat in a stationary car. Now I use them to make phone calls for me if I feel I simply must talk to somebody while on the road and don't want to pull over.

Remember when there were no cell phones? Somehow we managed.

And you do see the same kinds of behaviors in people talking on cell phones that you see when people are drunk -- they drive way too slowly, they drift around, they don't notice police cars, ambulances, they almost miss their exit -- plenty of behavior that can be observed and that is already enough cause to be pulled over, I believe. Driving to endanger? Twice now I've seen people actually stopped in the middle of an intersection having a heated conversation on their cell phone while traffic moves around them. We have to do something about this.

Anonymous said...

Are we the only population of people on Earth who focus on everything else in a car instead of driving it?
I often wonder. Thank you for the post, Barry.