Cell phones and driving

Abstract: Don’t.

Full text:

This is so interesting:

(1) Cell phone use damages driving performance almost to the DUI level.

(2) Laws against using cell phones while driving are effective and reduce cell phone use a lot.

(3) Where this happens, there’s no reduction in accidents!

Toward the end of the story we get what I think is the key to the puzzle: hands-free cell phone gadgets, which are legal (but shouldn’t be) everywhere, because talking on the phone with a hands-free device is just as bad as holding the phone to your ear.  The problem with a cell phone in the car is not dialing and fumbling, which after all take only a small fraction of the time required for a phone conversation (and you can do that at a time of your choice), but mental distraction of a particular kind.   This is surprising because listening to the radio, or chatting with a passenger, are not dangerous; why should chatting with someone on the phone be so risky?

To understand why, consider a couple of other things that are dangerous in cars: very young children and loose pets, which both (i) require your attention unpredictably (ii) with no sense of what’s happening on the road ahead that might be more important, and (iii) you know they might do this at any time.  The radio, in contrast, doesn’t have that psychological grip; you might miss a pearl on All Things Considered if you stop listening for a minute, but you know the radio will not be insulted, nor raise its voice insistently.

The party on the other end of the phone conversation is an adult to whom you psychologically owe attention, but unlike the adult passenger, has no idea of what you are seeing through the windshield.  A passenger will subconsciously stop talking if something untoward or just complicated is unfolding on the road ahead, and will expect you to suspend the conversation similarly, so she causes no important distraction at the critical moments when you need to be driving on all neurons, and you are aware of all this. In contrast, the person on the phone can’t do either of these things, and you are aware of that as well.  When you need to navigate a tricky bit of road, there’s no time to ask someone to be quiet, and telling a peer to shut up for a minute, in any terms, is so rude that it absolutely requires an excuse that makes it take even longer (“can you hold on for a minute? one of the kids is playing with my blunderbuss and I think it’s loaded”).

I’m surprised to see people using cell phones in their cars either way, because from the first time I tried it, I felt quite anxious and impaired, a feeling that didn’t go away when I tried my first bluetooth earpiece while driving.  My psychological solipsism doesn’t prove anything one way or another, but it turns out to have been a valid signal and consistent with the science.  Dear RBC readers, we have unbelievably entertaining and enlightening posts queued up for you far into the future. Don’t miss them by being dead; stay off the phone in your cars!

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

29 thoughts on “Cell phones and driving”

  1. "(3) Where this happens, there’s no reduction in accidents!"

    Risk homeostasis strikes again. Alternatively, it may be that, while cell phone conversations cause drivers to drive worse, they only do so under circumstances, and ways, which do not impact accident rates. Most driving may take place under conditions where there's a lot of margin for bad driving without causing accidents. Certainly, a study would probably be done under such circumstances, to avoid risk to the participants.

  2. …I'm sorry Mike, can you repeat that? My bluetooth is being buggy again. Wait,Mike call me back, I'm about to miss my exit…

  3. Is it possible that the reason cutting cell phone use didn't make any difference is that


    I got my license at 16 because my parents made me take a driving class and have a permit for a year, a year that they drove with me and actually gave me instruction. How many people are getting any instruction at all, beyond a "how to game the written test" style of class before getting a license.

    As for the driving and talking, hey, just tell everyone who calls you in the car (and you should be using a speakerphone or headset that keeps your hands free, as you should always have both hands available for driving), "Hey, i'm in the car". And then ask them to repeat stuff if you get distracted by driving or let them sit in silence if you have to focus on the road.

    If the study proves anything, though, it's that people are easily distracted when driving. Taking away the cell phone only gave them one less thing to be distracted by. They filled the void with other distractions. I'd go on into a discussion of how newer cars, with more and more bells and whistles and more and more ways of disengaging you from the act of driving, i.e. cruise control that adjusts to the cars ahead, automatic shifting, speed controlled steering, just encourage people to find other things to do while driving because it frees up the brain space, but who cares? Cars have this stuff and it's nice and we can't go backwards. It just makes driving so mind-numbingly boring and unengaging that you can't blame people for finding something, anything to do while they're driving.

  4. How about visually impaired passengers, or adults too short to see over the dashboard, who also don't see what the driver can through the windshield? I'll restrain the impulse to further multiply the bad counterexamples, I suspect something other than phone interlocutors' relative unwareness of the driver's situation accounts for the difference.

  5. But, Matthew, there's always room to become a worse driver. That using banning cell phones doesn't change accident rates has to have a more basic explanation. Mine would be that we've got a lot of evolutionary background in deciding when we can, and when we can't, afford to be distracted, and probably handle the cell phone in a different manner under circumstances where distracted driving is seriously dangerous. This is not to say that distracted driving is completely safe under some circumstances, merely that, under most circumstances it has only a slight influence on safety. And non-drunk cellphone users are probably fairly competent at distinguishing those circumstances from ones where you'd better be paying attention.

  6. Is it possible that people self-regulate on the basis of when they think it'll be "ok" to drive impaired? For example, they'll save most calls for when they're on a 30 mile stretch of a low-traffic stretch of highway they know well. So, while they're raising their potential accident rate during that stretch, they're raising it from close to zero.

    This is interesting because, on one hand, there's an obvious logic to not letting people do things that impair their ability to drive safely, but on the other hand there's already so much variation in ability that we're clearly not using an absolute driving ability threshold. Maybe person A drives better while on the cell phone than person B drives normally! Should we ban Person B from the road along with cell phones? Should we require that you have to have your hands at 10 and 2? I don't think these arguments necessarily lead to the conclusion that we should allow cell phone use while driving, but I do hope they prompt a clearer discussion of the principles involved.

  7. I think it's probably more important to look at the kinds of conversations people are having in cars. some people use their phones only to send what you might call voice sms — simple factual statements with a limited set of possible replies. Others have long conversations while driving that they wouldn't have anywhere else because the car is the only place where they have privacy.

  8. But the Highway Loss Data Institute says increased cell phone use has not led to an increase in accidents, so the hands-free phones don't seem like the right explanation for what we're seeing in these four states. I would think that legislators should hold back on passing more cell phone bans given that we don't have a decent scientific explanation for what's going on. I don't feel any safer — or notice more careful driving — in DC or NJ, two jurisdictions in which I drive that have such bans, than I do in MD or PA, which don't.

  9. I use a cellphone exclusively for staying in contact with folks while traveling. I have experienced and been curious about the phenomenon discussed. I've made perhaps ten calls from the road in three years. I do try to choose times when traffic is light, and I anticipate few potential needs for reaction to events, but still find it difficult to keep my focus on the road and my driving. The way I experience it is that part of my attention feels as if it is almost physically in another place. I have considered getting a "hands-free unit," but this study makes me think twice.

  10. My idea is a button on the phone that triggers a two-second delay in each transmission. Slowing the conversation lets the driver increase the attention paid to traffic, and gives the caller a subtle hint that the driver needs to pay attention to the road.

  11. How is talking on a hands-free cell phone any different from talking to a passenger? Are we to outlaw that also?

  12. I think acorvid basically has it right: "The way I experience it is that part of my attention feels as if it is almost physically in another place."

    That's the nature of talking on the phone under any circumstances. The phone is what McLuhan called a "cool" medium, essentially low-def. You have to fill in a lot of missing data, both in terms of the relatively poor sound reproduction, and in terms of other data that are available when you're communicating with someone who is physically present (whether you're looking at them or not).

    The part of your attention that's having to fill in the missing data is what is in "another place," operating in another part of your brain, a different set of circuitry. Has nothing to do with whether you're using a hands-free phone. That doesn't make the communication any higher-definition; it just gives you better physical control of the car.

  13. Very interesting. Assuming this is correct, we should be able to get good data on the level of impairment for hands-free vs. passenger conversation.

    I think the next step is then to outlaw hand-free devices in cars. And, just like in DWI cases, resulting accidents where the driver is at fault would entail criminal charges.

    Funny aside: I rarely use a cellphone (5 minutes a week, tops), but last month I happened to have been called while driving and after a bout 10-15 seconds I was pulled over – $150 fine. But I deserved it!

  14. I find it hard to believe that "talking on the phone with a hands-free device is just as bad as holding the phone to your ear". Sometimes (I'm sorry to admit), I've held a sandwich or drink with my right hand, and tried to drive with my left. I'm not as good a driver in those circumstances. I would think holding a phone causes the same reduction in capability.

  15. This whole, "We have no evidence at all that cell phone usage actually increases accident rates, but it seems so obvious to us that it must, that we're going to outlaw it anyway." line of reasoning bothers me. We really should have some basis stronger than that for ordering people around. I mean, you could outlaw cup holders and radios on that much basis.

    As for the cell phone, I don't have a blue tooth headset, but speaker phone works just fine with it sitting in the cup holder.

  16. Brett, the implication of these stories is that because it's talking on the phone tout court that causes accidents, and we only outlawed talking on a phone in your hand, hands-free use displaced hands-on use so there was no benefit. We have very good lab evidence that a driver using a phone in a car is driving as though legally drunk, which is pretty solid grounds to try to prevent it. The sticky problem is practical enforcement against hands-free use.

  17. Something I find disturbing about the way this discussion is proceeding is an assumption that there is one single model for human ability.

    Personally I am in the same bin as Michael — I feel very uncomfortable talking on the phone while driving, and avoid it as much as possible. HOWEVER I know other people who do not feel this discomfort and who are, as best I can tell, not fooling themselves — they really do seem substantially better than me at multi-tasking.

    I appreciate that the law may not be able to make these distinctions, but if we are trying to understand what is going on here, it would behoove us to do so. If we have self-selection of those who can multi-task driving and talking providing most of the driving chatter; while it is non-multi-taskers like myself who think this cannot possible be safe, we have an explanation for all the statistics — both the fact that the worrywarts think there SHOULD have been more accidents, and the fact that empirical data says, actually, no, there have not been more accidents.

    This is essentially a fleshed out version of Ano's point above.

    I we do want to investigate this scientifically (as opposed to gut feelings and anecdotes) a starting point would be to investigate the range of human capacity in this regard, a psychological investigation. The next step would be to investigate people's use of cellphones in cars, and their beliefs in how good they are at multi-tasking (a social-science type investigation); followed finally by correlating the two data sets.

  18. "We have very good lab evidence that a driver using a phone in a car is driving as though legally drunk,"

    Except, of course, that you can't decide from moment to moment whether or not to be drunk. You can hang up the damn phone. So it IS different.

    I'd like to see better evidence that talking on the cell phone actually causes a significant number of accidents, rather than that it just potentially could. Because it actually doing so is contingent on some poorly researched aspects of driver behavior. I'd also like to see some realization that risk is a part of life.

    And if the government is going to tell me that I can't do anything but drive while driving, if they take safety that seriously, they can damn well relax CAFE enough to give the car companies a weight budget to bring the average passenger car up to Trans-am standards, roll cages and 4 point harnesses. Cafe: It's the original blood for oil trade.

  19. Was it Ed Abbey who claimed humans are essentially "monkeys with car keys"? Thanks for the study link. The commercially-sponsored refusal to incorporate and develop products which optimize human brain functions ignores opportunities for human development.

    I'd love to read a discussion on this site of the social value/detriment of the whole "multi-tasking" phenomenon from which this country suffers.

  20. Isn't it possible that the explanation is that there is no reduction in accidents because the people who are careful about following the cell phone ban are also the most cautious and careful drivers who were able to concentrate on the road even when talking on the phone? Whereas the really risky drivers just ignore the laws.

    (I am sure there is a similar phenomenon with speed limits. They probably succeed in making the people who can safely operate a car at a higher speed slow down, whereas the unsafe drivers are the least likely to obey the limit.)

  21. I find it very difficult to believe that in states where there is a handheld cell phone ban that 100 percent of handheld cell phone use has been replaced by hands-free cell phone use. Bluetooth earpieces are common but ownership is far from universal.

  22. There is one limitation of the study that I think is worth noting. If I'm reading it correctly, the subjects in the experiment drove the simulated cars for 15 minutes at a time. That's not very long, compared to a lot of driving.

    I have an interest in this because it impacts the main way I use cell phones when driving. I pretty much never use the phone in the city, but only when on long stretches of highway. And, while this feeling is quite unreliable, it feels like this is a safety improvement. That's because it feels like the biggest danger to me is losing concentration in mile after mile of fairly monotonous highway. The radio signals are usually so bad in the parts of the country I'm thinking of that they don't help much to relieve monotony. What does help me stay alert is having the occasional phone conversation. It's perhaps a little distracting, but in the circumstances, that feels like a mixture of feature and bug. It certainly feels like being able to talk to someone is much more effective at keeping me at a safe level of awareness and alertness than rest stops, coffee, etc.

    Now the value of introspective evidence like this is basically zero. But whether my intuitions about this are right or wrong isn't even being tested by a study like this. What is being tested is the ability to drive safely for short periods in crowded conditions, and what things modify that ability. It's far from obvious that this generalises to facts about what damages driving performances over long distances in less crowded conditions. Perhaps we can do an empirical test – is there any evidence that CB radio usage had a differential effect on accident rates among long-distance truck drivers? Until then, I think it's wrong for Prof O'Hare to simply assert (1); it's a lot stronger claim than what the data support. And it would be wrong to make laws for driving under all conditions because of evidence pertaining to one fairly specific condition. Perhaps it would be fine to ban cell-phone usage while driving in New York City on the basis of tests like this, less so to ban it in New York State.

  23. You're holding out on us? You have swell posts you are keeping in reserve? So we will be better people for having waited? Wait a minute – this is like the hardtack problem in economics, right, where you are becalmed and you have hardtack which is molding, so you will accept a negative interest rate on a promise of hardtack in the future?

    I would like my hardtack NOW, thank you.

  24. Um, those would be posts teed up virtually, Dave. I believe the IT term (for software deliverable in six months) is vaporware. But you can enjoy them now if you treat them abstractly, (caution: spoiler alert) like "the one about the exit polls in the 2016 election; what a classic!", or "the one about the new Apple thingy with the stick-on skin patch contacts; hilarious!", or "the RBC really shines a light into Governor Whatsisname's tax trainwreck, deserves a million links."

  25. I was thinking about the CB's about when Brian posted his comment; also, pilots have quite consequential conversations on the radio, but with very restricted semantic scope and standardized signals. I don't know whether there was ever any research done about the CBs, but I bet the facts that (i) both sides of the conversation knew that the other party was driving, (ii) the extensive experience and practice of the users (driving and CBing both), and (iii) the push-to-talk technology (just hold the button down and you're not being spoken to) made them much less dangerous than cell phones are to amateur drivers.

  26. "How is talking on a hands-free cell phone any different from talking to a passenger? Are we to outlaw that also?"

    Research — yes, actual research — has shown that our brains react differently when talking to someone on the phone than when talking to someone sitting in the car with us; the gist is that it takes *much* more concentration and brain activity to talk to someone on the phone than someone sitting next to us, and is thus much more distracting. Also, someone sitting in the car with you sees the same things you do, and thus stops talking when, say, the car next to you cuts you off.

  27. I'm with the "cell phones affect different drivers in different ways" crowd. Again, it comes down to how much multitasking you personally can handle, where you're driving, and how congested the roads are at that moment. There is no way you could ever convince me to drive through downtown NYC or Miami with a phone on my ear. But a rural highway that generally has maybe one or two other people visible on the road at a time? No problem!

    Plus, I'm one of those weird people who has trouble interpreting non-verbal cues other than tone of voice. So I actually have to concentrate more to talk in person than I do on the phone! I feel much more nervous when I have a passenger in my car than when someone calls me while I'm driving.

    Besides, here in Florida, the most dangerous drivers I've encountered were NOT having cell phone conversations at the time. I've been cut off, stuck behind people going 35 on the interstate when there was a highway paralleling that interstate, and came close to hitting one idiot who didn't realize that during a downpour so bad you can't see more than 10 feet in front of you, you should TURN YOUR HEADLIGHTS ON. I've been blinded by headlights that were left on long after the rain stopped.

    Bad drivers are bad drivers, cell phone or no. The only thing a cell phone does is make already-inattentive drivers worse. Good drivers, as far as I can tell, aren't affected at all.

  28. If one wishes to speak on a cell phone while driving, I have this to say:

    Get a CDL, at least Class B, with a Passenger and School Bus Endorsement.

    Here's why: School Buses are notoriously bad for distracting a driver. Several States have banned cell phone use while driving a school bus; why? Because driving 60 screaming kids while trying to read a route description and speak with Dispatch on the radio is distracting enough that it's equivalent to a .07 BAC; they're PAID to drive like that. When the distractions are gone and the driver's heading back, they still don't let you talk on the cell because it LOOKS bad.

    However, the point is learning to deal effectively and positively with distraction. This is a skill most drivers never learn, hence the tendency for accidents being so high with cell phone use, or eating, or playing with your hair and make-up. The lack of a drop in accidents is not because of hands-free, though I'm sure it's a contributor. It's because drivers don't learn to drive under distraction conditions.

    But why a CDL with these endorsements? Simply because the School Bus Endorsement REQUIRES training in most states now. Any other CDL type you can blunder through, and maybe get through the system if you're a good or lucky enough driver. The SBE requires a trainer to sign off on the permit before allowing the applicant to test, and that's the difference. In class, they teach you how to deal with "Student Management," they call it; it's a basic course in how to deal with the many-headed distracting monster behind you that, like a cell phone, doesn't give a darn if you're about to crash. They're taught to read while driving, which is a required skill for working as a relief driver and finding snow-covered road signs in the dark.

    It's hilarious that the DOT will allow a truck driver to use a CB radio but not a cell phone; anyone who uses CB will understand what I mean.

    In short, if drivers would learn to manage their distractions effectively, talking on the phone would not be an issue. The answer is not banning, it's training.


  29. They should add a Zen component to the driving test, say sitting looking at a flower in silence for 10 minutes. A lot of teenagers (and others) would find this seriouasly hard.

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