The University of Illinois alumni magazine has an intriguing article about hands-free cell phones. The two mysteries to explain are why driving while using such a phone is so dangerous, and, why the people doing it seem not to recognize the danger. The article describes the research of Daniel Simons, best known as the co-author of the Invisible Gorilla.
Simons’ work shows that drivers believe that the risks of driving while telephoning are physical (i.e., the risk from a hand held phone is the loss of one hand on the wheel) when in fact they are cognitive and social. Poor audio quality makes drivers strain to hear cell phone calls when they should be devoting their attentional resources to the road. Passenger behavior is another key factor. When a driver stops talking to execute a maneuver, passengers instinctively pause their own conversation and look out the window, providing an extra set of eyes and the safety that goes with it. But someone calling on a cell phone thinks the call has been dropped and says “Hello, hello are you still there?”, creating an attentional demand at a particularly dangerous moment.
Perceptions of the safety or risk of driving while using a hands-free mobile phone is one of a range of phenomena that divides people into those who think their personal judgement trumps science and those who believe the reverse (climate change and pertussis vaccines are other obvious examples). But it’s not a live and let live difference, because those who ignore the science are likely to do harm not only to themselves but to others around them.