You talk on your cell phone while you drive, don’t you? Don’t try to deny it. I’ve seen you in traffic, chatting away while you recognize your exit at the last minute, slow down unexpectedly, and seem bewildered behind the wheel. It might be unfair of me, but I’ve come to expect drivers doing surprising things in traffic to be on their phones. I’ve come to call it “cell phone inebriation,” because the phone makes chatty drivers act rather like drunks.
Don’t just take my word for it. Decades of research have established that talking on a phone reduces awareness and reaction time. Phone conversations differ from in-person ones. Phone conversations require the speaker to visualize the person on the other end, which engages the very same cognitive systems needed to drive. The brain can’t do both, so it chooses to put the car on intermittent autopilot while the driver is on the phone.
The research is undeniable, and has been accumulating since the 1960s. Talking on a phone is different from talking to a passenger, although they might seem like the same thing.
Lawmakers and cell phone users have often been huffy about this, refusing to believe it’s a fact, focusing on the more obvious hazards like fumbling with the phone or texting. But research consistently bears it out, and in terms I used earlier: inebriation.
In 1997, for instance, researchers Donald Redelmeier and Robert Tibshirani wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that talking on a cell phone has the same effect on driving as being sloshed. They looked into whether cell phone use was associated with higher auto accident probability, and found that it was. They compared cell phone records with accident records, and concluded that, “When driving conditions and time on task were controlled for, the impairments associated with using a cell phone while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunk.”
In 2006, Donald Strayer and his colleagues looked more deeply into the DUI vs. cell comparison and found that, indeed, talking on a cell, even a hands-free cell, greatly lengthens reaction time equivalent to that of being snockered.
For accuracy, they used test subjects who were actually drunk. By doing so, they also found that being drunk and being conversational caused different driving problems. Drunks followed more closely, hit the brakes harder, and charged forward faster to reach speed again. While cell phone inebriation vanished quickly when the call ended, being drunk lasted as long as the alcohol level did.
There have been well over 100 studies of the effect of cell phone use on driving, most of which have found everything from a possible connection between cell phones and nutty driving to an unmistakable one. In 2009, a CBS/New York Times poll showed that an overwhelming majority of my fellow travelers had the same misgivings I do: 80 percent said cell phone use while driving should be banned.
As you might imagine, not everyone agrees with this viewpoint, and for a surprisingly good reason. The past decade or so has seen cell phone purchase and use soar, but the accident rate hasn’t. No one seriously doubts that cell phones cause slower reaction times, but nobody quite knows why this hasn’t resulted in an Armageddon of highway carnage.
Just this year, Saurabh Bhargava and Vikram Pathania of Carnegie Mellon and the London School of Economics, respectively, published a paper in the American Economic Journal that should have the cell phone industry popping corks. They found no significant association between the rate of vehicle accidents and cell phone use.
They do offer some explanations. One is that cell phone users may have compensating strategies, like slowing down while they’re on the phone. Another possibility is that regular phone users are risk-takers who are usually distracted, anyway, and being distracted on the phone isn’t any different. Yet a third is that operating a cell phone in traffic might actually keep some bored or sleepy drivers more alert.
But the reality is that we just don’t know why something as potentially dangerous as phoning while driving doesn’t cause widespread slaughter when it’s acknowledged by everyone that phoning interferes with driving.
I’m not mollified by the accident rate data. I still see driving as a full-time job, something that’s hazardous even under the best conditions. Digging for CDs, setting the GPS, putting on makeup, texting, talking on a cell—these are all things best done at a dead stop. Cell phone talkers might slow down to increase reaction time, but that only transfers the problem to others around them. Driving is a communal activity. Phoning is not.•
Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at [email protected]