Cell Phones and Driving: The Plot Thickens

Because of the enormous popularity of cell phones, and the continuing development of these devices to be “smarter” and include more features, many states have enacted restrictions on the use of cell phones while driving.  A common rule forbids texting or the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.  (It’s not clear that these restrictions would address the entire problem; as I’ve noted in an earlier post, there is some evidence that just talking on a cell phone is more distracting than one might think.)  Although these new rules have apparently reduced drivers’ cell phone use to some extent, they do not seem to have reduced accident rates significantly.

My initial reaction, when I read about this, is that perhaps the drivers who had been using cell phones just switched to some other distraction: eating lunch, smacking the kids, or just playing with one of the other electronic toys that are increasingly common in automobiles.  I have personally observed people driving on expressways doing a variety of activities: reading a book, rummaging through a briefcase for papers, and playing the cornet, just to pick a few.

A new study, reported at the Science Now site, suggests a slightly different explanation for the steady accident rate.

You can take the driver away from the cell phone, but you can’t take the risky behavior away from the driver. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which finds that people who talk on their phones while driving may already be unsafe drivers who are nearly as prone to crash with or without the device.

In other words, the hypothesis is that unsafe drivers are more likely to use cell phones behind the wheel, thereby compounding their incompetence.

Researchers at MIT first asked the 108 drivers included in the study about their typical cell phone usage while driving, their attitudes toward speeding and passing other vehicles, and their driving records.  The participants then took a 40-minute test drive (no cell phones allowed!), on an Interstate highway, i na specially instrumented vehicle.  As a group, the self-reported frequent cell phone users exhibited more risky driving behavior.

Frequent cell phone users, for example, zoomed along about 4.4 kilometers per hour faster on average and changed lanes twice as often, compared with rare users.

The differences observed were not enormous, but  may indicate a higher tolerance for risk taking.  This study used a relatively small sample, but other surveys have produced similar results.

“We have seen the same correlations in our Traffic Safety Culture Index,” says Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, an independently funded charitable research and education organization established by the American Automobile Association. The index surveys more than 3100 people each year. The foundation wants to change driver behavior, a challenge more complex than banning phones, he says.

I think the evidence for the proposition that cell phone use is distracting is fairly solid; this research identifies an additional way in which safety can be affected.   As Mr. Kissinger says, changing driver behavior is a challenging task.  One good start would be to try to convince drivers that they are not in a competition.  I think the most important point, though, is one that I made a few years ago in an article I wrote on safe cycling:

The best safety rule is this: don’t crash. The best way to avoid crashing is to focus 100 percent of your attention 100 percent of the time on riding safely.

You may be a bit more protected in a car, but you are probably moving faster; I think the advice works pretty well for driving, too.

One Response to Cell Phones and Driving: The Plot Thickens

  1. […] will not drive while sleepy or intoxicated; nor will it be distracted by sightseeing, fiddling with a cell phone, or turning around to smack the kid in the back seat.  An automatic system can also react more […]

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