Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Hands-free is not enough

The other day, we heard that the U.S. NTSB would be proposing a nationwide ban on mobile phone use, and people were speculating that it’d increase sales and use of hands-free calling. I thought that would be odd, since a number of studies have made it clear that it’s mostly talking on your mobile phone that’s dangerous, whether it’s hands-free or not. There’s cognitive interference when you talk to someone who isn’t in the car with you, and having the device be hands-free only helps with the mechanical aspects, not with the cognitive ones, and those appear to be more important from a safety point of view.

And, as I expected, the proposed ban includes hands-free devices. Quoting from their news release of yesterday:

No call, no text, no update behind the wheel: NTSB calls for nationwide ban on PEDs while driving

December 13, 2011

Following today’s Board meeting on the 2010 multi-vehicle highway accident in Gray Summit, Missouri, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) called for the first-ever nationwide ban on driver use of personal electronic devices (PEDs) while operating a motor vehicle.

The safety recommendation specifically calls for the 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers. The safety recommendation also urges use of the NHTSA model of high-visibility enforcement to support these bans and implementation of targeted communication campaigns to inform motorists of the new law and heightened enforcement.

According to NHTSA, more than 3,000 people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents, said Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving.

No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life.

Note nonemergency use and other than those designed to support the driving task. There is no exception for hands-free devices in their recommendation.

The NTSB has no standing to force this; in the United States, the states make their own traffic rules. But Congress can back the recommendation with funding incentives, as they did with the now-defunct 55 MPH speed limit, and as they have done for laws requiring seat-belt use.


Brent said...

what are the odds that the wireless carriers and cell phone manufacturers will let that become law anywhere?

next question, does this prohibit music and talk radio (am/fm/xm) - as they can be distracting too?

Brent said...

Barry Leiba said...

«what are the odds that the wireless carriers and cell phone manufacturers will let that become law anywhere?»

Indeed... and car makers, as well, who are making good money selling Bluetooth options.

Also, while it seems that bans on handheld use have some enforceability, I can't imagine how police could enforce a “no hands-free either” law. Do they pull you over because your lips were moving, and then have you say you were singing along with your music? Will we have them using your license plate number to try to tie into your mobile-phone records in real time? And then what happens when multiple people drive the same car from time to time? It just doesn't seem workable.

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

This conversation needs a contrarian voice, and I think it's me.

I support this ban, even though I believe that most people can drive safely while using phones, especially hands-free. But the ones who can't don't know that they can't. Worse, the ones who can will, over time, become the ones who can't.

Say that you are one of these safe-enough drivers today. It's likely that at some point, when you're old enough, your reaction time and vision and such will make you no longer safe. When should you stop? How can you know?

This is related to the phenomenon of all those 80-year-old drivers making Miami roads such a horrorshow. Some of those drivers haven't taken a road test since the Truman administration. At some point they became unsafe, but how could they know when?

An alternative proposal, which I haven't heard elsewhere, would be a two-tiered licensing system, with a "phone permitted" license only available to those who pass tests designed to measure distraction, reaction, etc. Perhaps while we're at it we could require periodic new testing to renew both kinds of licenses as a person ages.

I'd really like to be able to continue talking on the phone while I drive, but not at the cost of seeing my granddaughters hit by a car driven by a senior citizen less spry than myself. Without testing, I think a default of "no phones" is a lot safer than letting everyone use them.

Call me Paul said...

In Ontario we have a law prohibiting cell phone use while driving - unless a handsfree device is used. A useless law that was passed by a government only looking for good face, not improved road safety. Totally irrelevant, as it isn't enforced anyway.

Brent said...

@Nathaniel - Ive now lived in both NY and CA, each of which has a ban on cell phone sans hands-free technology.

If government can't enforce a ban on an activity that is easily visible (holding a cell phone to your ear), how on earth will they enforce one that prohibits hands-free use?

Barry Leiba said...

«This conversation needs a contrarian voice, and I think it's [Nathaniel].»

Actually not: I, too, support this ban; as I said in the main post, a number of studies have shown that even talking on a hands-free phone is distracting and dangerous — though, as Brent points to, studies haven't actually shown a corresponding reduction in collisions.

My issue isn't that it's a bad idea to ban even hands-free phone use. It's that it's impossible to enforce. And (&deity) knows, we don't need any more excuses for police officers to stop (&profile-type) people arbitrarily.

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

Brent -- You and I are both old enough to remember when drunk driving was illegal, but so spottily enforced and with low enough penalties that it made little difference. That didn't prove that such laws were hopeless, merely that passing the law is only a first step. After that, the combination of enforcement, increased penalties, public advocacy, and peer pressure eventually moved the needle. The experience of NY, CA, and ON with phone bans is still early days, and certainly doesn't define the limits of the possible.

Or, to be more blunt: Once people who commit vehicular homicide start getting much longer sentences if they were on the phone at the time, people may start to think twice about phones in the car.

Katharine said...

Hear! Hear! Nathaniel B. You've expressed my views doubtless far more eloquently than I could have, including the change in attitudes re drunk driving in the past three decades or so.