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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Are cell phones bad for conducting business? Researchers have discovered something they call 'inattention blindness' for drivers using cell phones

January 23, 2006

After having a cell phone for several years now, I'm asking myself if they're worth having in the car. Ever since I saw that the ultra-cool Mike Connors had one in his convertible in the TV show "Mannix," I've been besotted with the desire to look similarly cool as I call my secretary back at the office.

There's a sense of power and control with having a phone in the car. There's also a residual tint of elitist clout, too. Car phones were expensive and even Mannix didn't use his for humdrum affairs. As the phones became more accessible, they still retained that uppertier allure. Hollywood agents were famous for supposedly selling movies while sitting in LA traffic jams. Or at least they looked that way, although there are rumors they were just prattling to each other. The scene was immortalized in a novelty song called "Car Phone" in 1990.

Well, I've never gotten to talk on a car phone to my secretary, because I've never had one. Having a phone in the car isn't a big deal anymore. Teen-agers have them. Phones are priced lower than office lamps and monthly minutes can be had as cheaply as a coffee habit. I've had a phone for years now, and I'm addicted to it. I use mine extensively to talk with my office, with clients and with family. Not long ago, a cell phone came as a perk with a job I had with a consulting company, and I loved it, even though I rarely left the office.

Despite my attachment to my phone, I don't like talking on it in traffic. If nothing else, I've been seeing a lot of drivers who look like extras from "Night of the Living Dead" doing truly imbecilic things behind the wheel. They stare straight ahead while changing lanes, negotiating tight turns, or running red lights. They slow down and speed up unpredictably. It's so bad that when I see a driver who has obviously disconnected brain from pavement I expect to see a cell phone pressed to his ear.

It turns out I'm not the only one noticing this effect. David Strayer and Frank Drews of the University of Utah have discovered something they call "inattention blindness," when drivers can't see the road because they're on the cell phone. Their most recent studies show that cell phones turn even 20-somethings into seniors by enormously increasing their reaction times into the realms occupied by 70-somethings. They've shown that cell-phone jabber is deadlier than being drunk to a blood alcohol level of 0.08.

The effect isn't even altogether personal. They found phone talkers took longer to brake, but also took longer to get going again, impeding the whole traffic flow and messing up patterns for everyone. Long ago, it was assumed the higher accident rates for phone talkers was due to fumbling and looking down as they dialed. Strayer and Drews have proven otherwise. While hands-free operation can help, it doesn't help enough.

According to the Web site Cellular News (www.cellular-news.com), some 44 countries ban talking and driving. Many, though, still assume a hands-free arrangement is good enough. The Utah findings have only just been announced, so it could take a while for them to make the global rounds.

What amazes me is that nobody has investigated the inverse effect, but I would have to think it exists. Not only is a phone talker screwing up traffic, but is probably screwing up the conversation, too. That's no big deal if he's talking to Mom and Dad, but the stakes go up when he's talking with a disgruntled client. I have a mental picture of the customer, his brow furiously furrowed, trying to follow the ramblings of someone who's dodging delivery vans and pedestrians while explaining why the shipment is going to be late.

Something happens to credibility when it's obvious you're giving only half an ear to the boss or a customer. As the University of Utah folks have discovered, that's about the best you can do in traffic.

For myself, I dislike talking on my cell while driving, unless the road is wide open. I rarely call anyone from the car while in town. If I need to make a call, I pull over. As a bonus, that policy makes me think hard about priorities, instead of trying to jam two priorities into a sack that will hold only one. I've been known to ask someone who called me while I was in the car if I could call him back. Some intersections in Indianapolis, such as 96th Street and Hague Road, should probably have their cellular towers pulled down so drivers aren't tempted to talk and drive. Our technology has once again outrun our ability to use it, and we need to make allowances for our human failings.



Altom is a senior business consultant for Perficient Consulting. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at tim.altom@perficient.com.
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