Thursday, November 15, 2007

Wunelle's Public Service Announcement

I spend a lot of time in my car. Not as much as I used to, but I still do a lot of driving. One of the reasons I so often choose to drive my eight hour commute between WI and KY (apart from the obvious fact that flying is a colossal pain in the ass) is that I can use the time in the car profitably. I get to listen to music--a pretty high priority for me--and I usually use my phone to catch up with everybody. (I once used this stretch of time to test the hypothesis that a particularly long-winded friend would talk and talk without end if I didn't cut off the conversation; and, lo and behold, he talked continuously from Louisville to the South side of Chicago--nearly four full hours!--before another call bumped in and I decided, hypothesis proved, to take the out given me.)

Yes, I talk on my phone in the car all the time. But one thing I DON'T do is hold my phone to my face. I have a little wired Jabra earpiece that hangs from my rearview mirror, and the first thing I do when I get in the car is plug this device into my phone. Then, earphone in place, most calls I place are single-button affairs, and answering an incoming call is also simple and non-distracting. The Jabra is comfortable and has clearer audio than a bluetooth model (and it's non-transmitting).

I think it's an open question whether talking on the phone over a wired headset is more distracting than talking with a person in the seat next to you, but it's a hands-down improvement over people holding their phone up to their ear. Physically holding your phone seems distracting in the extreme, and it restricts both vision and head movement. These three things--restricted head movement, restricted vision, and distraction--seem to be a deadly trio. On my trip this week to MN and back I saw people driving like lobotomized fools again and again, and, as if on cue, when you get close to them they are without exception being held hostage by their phone up at their ear. (As a motorcyclist, though I wasn't on the bike this week, this careless driving is especially irksome to me and makes me want to throttle people.)

Every person who drives has seen this and has an opinion on the subject, I know. My point is this: there's no way this state of affairs is going to be allowed to continue indefinitely. Something's gonna give. We need to make a concerted effort to use some kinds of hands-free device in our cars or we will surely lose the privilege of using a phone in the car altogether.

And that will make my commute considerably less pleasant (to say nothing of having to stop along the way to call in my Gino's to-go order).


Jeffy said...

Wunelle - I think you are right that there is an awful lot of awful driving going on, and that most of it (or maybe the worst of it) is being perpetrated by folks yapping on phones. I think you are also right that we are in danger of losing that privilege if we don't find a way to do it without putting everyone else on the road at risk.

Unfortunately, I don't think the answer is as simple as hands-free phones for everyone. While I'll admit that holding a phone to my head does change my driving for the worse, I am pretty convinced that the act of holding the phone doesn't contribute much of the overall degradation. About all I'd attribute to phone holding is a reduction in my use of turn signals - not a good thing, but not a terrible transgression.

I also don't blame dialing for much of the problem either. That doesn't take enough time to amount to much of an issue.

I agree with most of the experts who attribute the bulk of the bad effects of driving-while-talking come as a result of the lack of attention that the talker is paying to the act of driving. Here's a quote from the U of Utah about some research that was done there on driving while talking (this was the research that got some press for equating talking-while-driving with driving intoxicated):

"Each of the study's 40 participants “drove” a PatrolSim driving simulator four times: once each while undistracted, using a handheld cell phone, using a hands-free cell phone and while intoxicated to the 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level after drinking vodka and orange juice. Participants followed a simulated pace car that braked intermittently.

Both handheld and hands-free cell phones impaired driving, with no significant difference in the degree of impairment. That “calls into question driving regulations that prohibited handheld cell phones and permit hands-free cell phones,” the researchers write.

The study found that compared with undistracted drivers:

* Motorists who talked on either handheld or hands-free cell phones drove slightly slower, were 9 percent slower to hit the brakes, displayed 24 percent more variation in following distance as their attention switched between driving and conversing, were 19 percent slower to resume normal speed after braking and were more likely to crash. Three study participants rear-ended the pace car. All were talking on cell phones. None were drunk.
* Drivers drunk at the 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level drove a bit more slowly than both undistracted drivers and drivers using cell phones, yet more aggressively. They followed the pace car more closely, were twice as likely to brake only four seconds before a collision would have occurred, and hit their brakes with 23 percent more force. “Neither accident rates, nor reaction times to vehicles braking in front of the participant, nor recovery of lost speed following braking differed significantly” from undistracted drivers, the researchers write.

“Impairments associated with using a cell phone while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunk,” they conclude."

You can read the entire news report from the U of Utah at this site:

One other interesting finding by these researchers is that people are not aware of their diminished ability to drive while they are talking on a cell phone.

It seems a little odd that talking on a hands-free cell phone could be more distracting than talking with a passenger in the car. For the driver both activities seem pretty much the same. There are some differences, however, and those could plausibly explain the extra risk posed by cell phones. When conversing with a passenger, that person is generally helping pay attention to the driving, at least a little bit. Even though the driver may be less apt to notice that he is weaving or approaching a slower vehicle, the passenger may notice and alert the driver. The passenger in the car is also better about noticing that some particularly taxing driving might be going on and pause the chat for a few minutes until the tension passes.

I too want to be able to continue to talk on my cell phone while I drive (and in complete agreement with the research, I am not aware that my driving is greatly impacted by my cell phone use), and I would love it if some way of mitigating the effects could be legislated, rather than a total ban. So far, though, I have not seen or heard of any way to do that.

I do think that some people are much less affected than others. They seem to be able to pay sufficient attention to their driving while still carrying on conversation. Maybe future research can focus on what skills these folks have, and how to instill those skills in others.

Or, maybe in the interim there can be a 'Distractions' component to the driver's license testing to weed out folks who are not able to handle distractions while driving. Those folks do not get a permit to drive while talking (or walk while chewing) and those who can perform the task are allowed to. Maybe this testing could be expanded to other classes of licenses - if you can't drive through distractions then maybe you ought not get a class B or A license, or a school bus endorsement. I could see this getting expanded to cover all sorts of qualifiers - a Class C license, but with a requirement for corrective lenses, no night driving, no cell phone and no music.

I just hope I'd fall into the group that gets the fully unrestricted license.

wunelle said...

I'm fascinated at the idea that a hands-free phone is STILL more distracting than a passenger in the seat (and indeed as distracting as a hand-held phone). This seems quite counter-intuitive to me.

True, I never see bad drivers talking on a hands-free phone, but then again I NEVER see people on a hands-free phone!

I wonder if the problem here is the degree of communication in person which is non-verbal. Something like 85% of what gets communicated in a conversation (face-to-face) is non-verbal. Of course, none of this occurs during a phone call--it's ALL verbal. So maybe this contributes to the distraction factor.

Jeffy said...

It may not seem so counter-intuitive when you think about what is really going on.

I seems pretty clear to me that the problems posed by cell phone use are not simply the physical task of holding the phone and handling the controls of the vehicle, but the diversion of attention that is needed for the task of driving.

It is physically very easy to operate a car with one hand, especially once it is rolling down the highway. And so much of what we have to pay attention to is so ingrained as to feel automated. That is what lulls us into the belief that we can do it without our full attention. The car seems to drive itself to our destination.

Crashes happen when folks are taken by surprise and are unable to react quickly enough to avoid the problem. If you are distracted and don't notice the problem as soon as possible that just reduces your already too short time to react. Add to that the additional dangers posed when not paying full attention, like following too closely, and a lack of attention can add up to big problems. Drunk drivers have similar results for a different reason - instead of not noticing the hazard and having too little time to react they can't respond quickly when they do notice a hazard.

I thought it was interesting that in the study I quoted the drunk drivers actually did BETTER than the ones on the cell phones. The researchers didn't want to minimize the dangers of drunk driving , and so explained that the tests were done early in the day when the drunks were more alert than they would normally be at night. And the cell phone drivers did that bad even though they knew they were in an abnormal setting and were likely being tested. It wouldn't surprise me if they were even worse on real roads.

Given these study results, it would be interesting to compare the abilities of folks talking on phones to those holding a conversation with a passenger. While a phone appears to be a bigger problem it would be interesting to know how bad conversation is in general. The researchers at Utah had noticed that many crashers had been talking on their phones before their crashes, but it probably doesn't occur to anyone to ask a crasher if they were talking to their passenger prior to crashing.

One related issue is the recent finding that new drivers (teens) are FAR more likely to crash if there are other teens in the car. It may be that they are screwing around with their friends, or it may be that for inexperienced drivers even an in-person conversation with a passenger is a recipe for disaster.

Jeffy said...

While I still think there is some merit to the testing idea I proposed above, I should mention one coping technique that can help in some situations.

My spouse will often delegate car-phoning responsibilities to the kids in the back seat of the car. That way she can pay more attention to driving, and I get the pleasure of phone calls from my 12-year-old daughter saying, in effect, "Where the hell are you? Hurry up and get your ass home so we can have supper!"

wunelle said...

Ah, the old delegate-the-bitchy-phone-call ploy! Very sneaky (and good training for your daughter, I imagine!)

My niece is recently licensed to drive, and her parents have declared that giving rides to her friends is strictly verboten for now. I've also been helping our Korean exchange student learn to drive, and it takes very little to distract her (of course). So the whole business of distraction generally seems germane to this discussion.

I guess I've had stuck in my head forever the idea that HOLDING the phone is the bad thing. And it seems confirmed by all the shitty drivers who are holding their phones. But there are other explanations for my not seeing hands-free users driving badly--namely, that I never see ANY hands-free users!

So I need to recalibrate my expectations.

(And of course I now have to face that I'm as shitty a driver on my headset as I'd be holding my phone--which means that, on principle, I ought to stop talking in the car. Not sure that's gonna happen....)

Jeffy said...

The folks at the U of Utah who did the research I mentioned earlier have done lots of research on driving and distractions. Their work is available here:

They have looked into several of the things I was curious about:

Conversations with passengers do not have much impact on the driver

Listening to music or books on tape has no impact on the driver

Their studies on conversations come to the conclusion that the passenger does help the driver to pay attention, and that seems to minimize the distraction of the conversation.

The one topic they don't seem to have covered is how much variation there is between people as far as how affected they are by cell phone use. I am aware that talking on a cell phone does have an impact on my driving, but I'm inclined to think that I still do a decent job. It seems possible that some folks might do fine on a cell phone, while others might do especially poorly.

It would also be interesting to know if there are ways (besides passing the phone to a kid) to minimize the effects. Maybe the only solution is to move toward cars that do more of the driving for us to help compensate for our lack of attention.

It is a problem that I only see getting worse, as folks spend more time on cell phones and start adding other things to the mix, like surfing the web on smart phones.

Dzesika said...

Just a brief aside: Sometime in '05 or so, the UK made it illegal to talk on a mobile in your car, unless you used some sort of hands-free device. The statistics - and I wish I could find them - were rather dramatic when tracking motorway accidents a year down the line. Sure, it's still distracting to have a hands-free kit. But, bottom line, it's not *as* distracting than drive-dialing ...

wunelle said...

Yeah, far be it from me to contradict the research that Jeffy cites, but I just can't wrap my head around the HOLDING of the phone being no big factor. My gut tells me it should make a significant difference.

I guess all we really have for our intuition is our own experience, and I know I drive worse when I'm holding my phone than when I use my headset; and I'm rarely aware of mistakes I make or near-misses because of my using my headset (but I AM aware--and feel like an idiot--of the mistakes I make when I hold my phone).

But the truth is what it is, and the statistics will bear it out in time. As Jeffy says, it may have lots to do with how individuals respond to these conditions.

(But I'd love to see the study you cite as well.)

having my cake said...

If it helps in your deliberations, I was waiting to cross the road at a zebra crossing and I could see this car coming towards me quite fast. As it got closer, I could see the female driver gesticulating wildly. I thought she was shouting abuse at me at first and I certainly wasnt about to step out. When the car actually passed me, I realised that she was wearing a headset and talking to the person at the other end of the call, whilst using both hands to emphasise her point... she appeared to be using her knees to operate the steering wheel...
Over here they have now brought in 3 points on your licence and a fine for people caught holding their phones whilst driving. I think the whole point is that you should have both hands on the steering wheel.

That doesnt even begin to cover the whole problem of multitasking and, as a woman, I find that even I am not fully concentrating on either the driving or the phone call when I try to do both simultaneously. God only knows how you men cope :)

*lights the blue touch paper and runs away very quickly laughing*

Tom Alfveby said...

Didn't know I was wasting your time. Thought I was catching up and asking a good friend for advice after a layoff. Or discussing the new job before the layoff. Not really sure when that was but the time surprised me too....
call me sometime- just got back from Amsterdam.

wunelle said...

Cake--my wife is remarkable for NOT doing most things one stereotypically likes to kid women about doing in the car (makeup, mostly). But she does talk on her phone!

I'm sure that MY talking on the phone makes me a BETTER driver ;-)

(Hey, if an alky can say it, why not me?)

TA--Howdy. For the record, ladies and gents, I did NOT incriminate anyone by name, and I did NOT claim the aforementioned conversation was a waste of my time!

What I DID say was that a four hour phone conversation is "long-winded" (admittedly with some poetic license) and if that's not a true statement then I don't know what is. But I, too, was happy to be on the other end of the long call (and many calls in this setting go quite long), and if you haven't figured out that I MYSELF am long-winded in every setting then you haven't been paying attention!

(I think it was Mark Twain who said let's not let facts get in the way of a good story.)