There have been several studies recently claiming that talking on a phone while driving is as dangerous as driving drunk. Psychology Professor Marcel Just used brain imaging to show a 37% drop in driving-associated brain activity while listening to a cell phone. According to a report on CMU’s website, “Just and his colleagues showed that simply listening to a cell phone while driving can cause drivers to commit errors as if they were under the influence of alcohol. New findings by Carnegie Mellon researchers show making the devices hands-free or voice-activated is not sufficient in eliminating these distractions.”
Okay, I can believe that talking on a hands-free phone does draw some attention away from driving, but I find it hard to believe that it is equivalent to driving under the influence. Furthermore, I would argue that singing along with music or listening to a good audio book should have the same effect. The CMU article also states:
Other distractions, such as eating, listening to the radio or talking with a passenger, also can divert a driver. Though it is not known how these activities compare to cell-phone use, Just said there are reasons to believe cell phones may be especially distracting.
“Talking on a cell phone has a special social demand, such that not attending to the cell conversation can be interpreted as rude, insulting behavior,” he noted. A passenger, by contrast, is likely to recognize increased demands on the driver’s attention and stop talking.
This sounds like pure conjecture. I don’t buy it. From my own experience, I would have to argue the opposite. When I’m talking to my wife on my way home from work, for example, I often will ask her to repeat what she said, because I had tuned it out while paying attention to other drivers at an intersection. And I know that when I’m having a discussion with a co-worker on the way to lunch, I frequently feel the need to look at them, taking my eyes off of the road. I never divert my eyes from the road while talking on the phone.
Another study by researchers at the University of Utah specifically claims that cell phones distract drivers more than passengers do. I must question their proof as well.
Two videos from the study show the dangers of driving while phone-chatting. In one, drivers using a hands-free device to talk on the phone inadvertently pass a highway exit that they had been instructed to take. In another, the drivers aren’t on the phone, but rather are chatting with a passenger. These drivers successfully take the rest-area exit because their passengers alert them to do so.
They claim that a chatty passenger is less distracting because they can point out hazards or remind drivers of exits. Now, the last time I checked, missing an exit is annoying and inconvenient, but it’s not dangerous. I’ve missed exits for many reasons, including conversing with passengers.
There was also a Mythbusters episode in which they confirmed the myth that talking on a cell phone while driving is just as dangerous as driving under the influence. However, they weren’t using a hands-free headset—they were holding the phone and driving one-handed—and the conditions were unrealistic. They were on a course laid out with traffic cones, rather than on city streets, and they were being quizzed over the phone, having to figure out math problems and the like. When I’m talking on the phone while driving, the most difficult question I’m answering is “What should I fix for dinner?”
The studies mentioned above seem to me that they are trying to prove that talking on cell phones is dangerous, rather than taking an objective approach. I want to see a study that performs like testing on singing with music, eating, listening to an audio book or news broadcast, navigating menus on an in-dash display, and dealing with unruly children. I’m betting that many of these would be worse than talking on a hands-free phone. How many laws should we make about what drivers can’t do?
Maybe we should outlaw driving altogether. That would reduce traffic accidents by 100%, and nobody would miss an exit!