I was listening to WEEI’s broadcast of the ball game in the car this evening (the game in which Boston clinched a playoff slot, woo hoo). It’s a wonderful world in which I can set my smartphone – better called a pocket computer – to pick up a Boston radio station from the web, a continent away, and plug it into the Aux input of the car radio,.
The announcers interviewed a honcha of AT&T’s New England operation during a pitching change, about a PR program AT&T is putting on to discourage texting and driving. Good for AT&T, but she made a serious mistake, plugging a speech-to-text/text-to-speech technology for texting. Do. Not. Do. This. And do not use a hands-free device to talk on the phone in the car; it’s just as dangerous as holding the phone up to your ear and talking. Think about all the great RBC posts you will miss if you are dead. David Strayer at the University of Utah runs the go-to lab about this and in their latest very interesting paper we find
Taken together, the data demonstrate that conversing on a cell phone impaired driving performance and that the distracting effects of cell-phone conversations were equivalent for hand-held and hands-free devices….Finally, the accident data indicated that there were significantly [p<.05] more accidents when participants were conversing on a cell phone than in the single-task baseline or alcohol [BAL = .08] conditions.
Why this is true is not intuitively obvious, and I think even Strayer’s group, who recognize that this is a cognitive problem and not an issue of visual distraction by the keyboard, doesn’t quite get it: the psychology through which the cell phone impairs driving is not only the driver’s but also the conversational partner’s, and what the driver intuits about the latter. Again, the big problem with the phone is not manipulating the keys or looking at it; that only takes a short time. It’s dangerous, but not for long. The danger is in the conversation itself, and to understand the reason, consider driving while (i) listening to the radio as I was (ii) conversing with an adult passenger (iii) transporting a four-year-old (iv) sharing the front seat with a largish dog.
Why are the first two not dangerous, and the last two make you tense up just thinking about them?
The radio is not a person, and you subconsciously know that you may miss something if you attend to something in the road ahead, but also that you won’t insult it if you “listen away”, and it won’t suffer, much less indicate unease. The adult passenger can see out the windshield and also catch very subtle changes in your tone of voice or body language. If you stop talking to attend to the car braking up ahead, the passenger knows why instantly, and accommodates, and because you know this, you aren’t anxious about interrupting the conversation. The dog and the child, in contrast, are completely unaware of what’s coming up on the road or what you need to pay attention to; the former is happy to jump in your lap if it seems like a good idea at any moment, and the child demands attention on her own schedule and at her will.
The other side of a cell phone conversation, unlike the passenger, cannot see out the windshield nor see you, and gets none of the subtle cues about why you stopped talking in the middle of a sentence (indeed may not even know you are in a car). You know this, and you know subconsciously that diverting your attention to the road will make your interlocutor anxious, perhaps saying “are you still there? hello?” … and you’re at the side of the road exchanging papers and feeling like an idiot.
I think you can safely dictate a letter, or even emails, while driving. But texting has become less and less asynchronous; people who text a lot do it much more like conversation, so unless you’re initiating the exchange, you know the other party is waiting for you to respond but, again, has no clue what you really need to attend to at the moment.
What I infer as a policy implication from this research is the need for a distinctive button on every cell phone that sets the phone to answer a call and say “Hi; this is X. I’m driving, sorry: talk to you later when it’s safe to do so”, or sends a text message reply to the same effect as soon as a text comes in. I thought about a required cellphone jammer in every car, but the phone isn’t instantly deadly and occasionally it serves an urgent purpose, so we have to learn appropriate behavior and use it. Of course it couldn’t hurt to require a pithy summary of Strayer’s findings to be packaged with every phone, in large type, maybe even require cell phone providers to obtain a copy signed by the customer with every sale.