Cellphones and driving

California is considering a ban on cell phone use while driving. Hands-free phones will still be permitted. The informal and published debate about this is interesting because of a seemingly desperate desire not to believe the well-established facts, which are (1) Using a cell phone while driving is about as impairing as being just at the legal alcohol limit; (2) a handsfree phone is just as bad as a handheld one. The law should rule out any phone use while driving, and anyone doing it, legal or not, should be an object of social scorn, right up there with drunk drivers.

The go-to lab for research on this is that of David Strayer, at the University of Utah. Here’s a recent press release; papers are posted at his web site.

I find these results perfectly match my intuitive sense of how much worse I drive using a cell phone, whether or not I’m dialing it or have a hand occupied holding it up, and I have completely forsworn this behavior. What’s interesting is that the handsfree option doesn’t help; after all, you can safely converse with someone in your car while driving, and you can listen to the radio. I believe the problem is that a phone conversation demands your attention and response, unlike the radio, and that the person on the other end, unlike your passenger, can’t see what you see through the windshield nor see your visual behavioral cues. The passenger will stop talking instinctively when something important is happening on the road, or when you tense up, but the other party on the phone can’t do this.

I’d like to see someone with the right lab setup test this conjecture; the critical experiment would be to have a driver talking on a handsfree phone with a partner in another room who’s watching the same simulator display as the driver, and maybe watching video of the driver as well. I bet driving would be very little impaired.

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.

20 thoughts on “Cellphones and driving”

  1. Although the impairment to driving caused by a phone conversation may be similar in magnitude as being slightly drunk (i.e. at the legal limit), I think it's different in character:
    For obvious reasons I haven't experimented with this while driving, but alcohol tends to encourage risk taking in a way that chatting on the phone doesn't. Hence the stereotype of the car poking along at 10 under the limit with some idiot holding a phone to his or her ear.
    Using the (decidedly non-scientific) newspaper test, alcohol is a factor in countless accidents, many of them single-vehicle and/or high-speed crashes. Cases where mobile phone inattention caused an accident are rarely seen.

  2. "(1) Using a cell phone while driving is about as impairing as being just at the legal alcohol limit;"
    Are you sure this isn't saying that we take driving at the legal alcohol limit too seriously, and perhaps it should be increased to something that cough medicine wouldn't trigger?

  3. "What's interesting is that the handsfree option doesn't help; after all, you can safely converse with someone in your car while driving"
    Do we have actual confirmation of this?
    Anyway, I'm with Richard on this: The very social scorn you appeal to assures that blood alcohol levels will NOT be set at a rational point, because they effectively inhibit anyone from pushing back if they are made unreasonably strict.

  4. Dear Frank —
    hate to tell you this but I see A LOT of cases in which cell phone use/inattention caused accidents. but then I work in a small law firm that handles personal injury cases, plaintiff side — the people who've been hurt.
    right now, ten percent of our car accident cases have arisen because the selfish moron who hit our client was talking on a cell phone at the time of the accident. And the problem isn't that someone slows down, in our cases they sped up. In one of them, the driver blew through a red light while on his phone, and hit our client's car and flipped it over. In another the driver didn't notice that his lead foot on the gas had increased his speed, and didn't notice that traffic ahead had slowed down, and smashed into the rear end of our client's car.
    These accidents were not reported in any newspapers. Most car accidents are not, because they're not news.

  5. The law should rule out any phone use while driving, and anyone doing it, legal or not, should be an object of social scorn, right up there with drunk drivers.
    Amen to that. Until the law and social mores catch up to reality, though, I'm doing my part; when somebody talking on the phone nearly runs me over (which happens, oh, 3 or 4 times a week) I yell "get off the f***ing phone, you f***ing moron"–loud enough for the person on the other end to hear. I encourage everyone to do the same. Even sociopaths (and anyone who talks on the phone while driving would have to be a sociopath) will respond to the prospect of public shame and humiliation.

  6. I think I have convinced myself to not answer or talk on the phone while driving a car.
    I think Michael's hypothesis gets at the basic problem: it requires too much imagination and attention to a place that does not include the car and the road. It is not the challenge of handling the phone, it is the challenge to imagination and attention, which is dangerous.
    I think Frank is probably right as well. For most people, most of the time, their response to being on the cellphone is to drain away their impatience and aggression, and so they drive slower and in a more routine, non-aggressive way. The accidents happen when, in their passivity, they fail to respond to a change in their environment.
    The comparison to driving at the legal limit for alcohol is misplaced. The common legal limit of .08 is a bit of a low-ball, the practical necessity of which I accept. But, if we are testing driving skills, that may not be a great benchmark.
    I used to be intimately familiar with auto safety studies, and a fair reading of the alcohol studies, would be that some driving skills and behavior actually improve slightly with the first drink, and are only beginning to decline as a person reaches the legal limit on blood-alcohol. How tired a person is, and their mood, matters a lot, of course, so I would not want to extrapolate to the driving ability of someone at 2 am on Saturday night after a party.
    I would suggest, not just that Michael's experiment would be worthwhile, but, if confirmed, it might be even more instructive than social opprobrium. People need "training experiences" to improve judgement, and neither social pressure nor very low-risk penalties are likely to be as effective as personal experience. (you are probably more likely to actually have an accident with a cell-phone than to be ticketed for using one in hands free operation).
    Developing some video game simulators to improve driving judgement and putting them in shopping malls might prove to be very effective. Let everyone experience the scientific method!

  7. "The passenger will stop talking instinctively when something important is happening on the road" Michael, I respect your views very much but I have to wonder if you have ever driven a car with children in it. While I do believe many people exhibit great stupidity while using their cellphones in vehicles, I really don't believe the distraction of cell phones is as great as, for example, driving children. Should we ban children from cars? Can't we come up with some approach other than banning activities that have many benefits but that some people abuse?

  8. Nice point; children and pets are often big trouble in a car. Mine, especially the latest pup until he grew up some and calmed down, nearly put me off the road more than once. Never transporting them in the car is very costly, so we cope. Not using a cell phone until you find a place to pull over is not a big deal, so my view is that the benefits of it outweigh the costs. I should say that I'm not certain whether I'm more afraid of how stupid and careless I would feel if I had an accident using my cell phone, or of the actual harm I might do to others or to me; fortunately both point in the same direction.
    The evidence of the research as I understand it is that using a cell phone while driving a car is abusing it, period; there's no safe way.
    Aside from policy implications, I think if one simply has to use a cell phone in a car (as was impossible while we were winning World War II, enjoying the Beatles and the Stones, building the great bridges, etc. etc.) one has either lost control of one's attention to others and should get it back, or has lost control of one's time to commuting and should move. Keeping a car between two white lines is not a high-level use of the human mind.

  9. "there's no safe way."
    Safety is a relative matter, not some binary. We can't really say, "This is safe, that is dangerous", only, "This is "x" degree of dangerous, that is "y" degree of dangerous."
    So, where, numerically, are you planning on setting the cutoff, and are you willing to be consistant about it? Banning ANY activity in cars that reaches that threshold?
    And will the rest of the public go along with your judgement as to where that cutoff should be?

  10. As usual, Brett reaches the pith of the question. We didn't need any rules when the road was free. On today's hiway, where you join a string of vehicles traveling 65 mph and separated by one car length, driven mainly by people who think airbags will save them, you need a lot of rules.
    But we're not going to get them. Legislatures will approve hands-free phones, guys with small penii will buy trucks with large grills, enforcement will remain cosmetic and sporadic, and drivers will continue to talk on the phone as they rush hither and yon on errands that should have been done with the phone at home.
    There probably will be one big change- if a strand of your hair tests positive for marijuana use in the past 30 days, you will lose your license, be fined $1000 for 'court costs', and required to attend 'drug rehab' classes until you fall on your knees and beg to die.
    It's the American Way.

  11. I don't think the high distraction quotient of talking on the phone versus listening to the radio or having a live conversation in the car would have surprised Marshall McLuhan. Telephone communication requires a high degree of involvement because the quality of the sound reproduction is low, so the participant has to exert more sustained effort to fill in the missing bits of information ("cool" in McLuhan's terms), whereas radio is much higher definition ("hot") and therefore requires less active involvement on the part of the listener. A conversation with someone who is in the car with you is quite "hot" because it's live, no reproduction issues, and also because it provides data in at least two sensory modes.

  12. Well, part of learning to fly an airplane is learning to listen and respond on one radio channel while flying the airplane and possibly monitoring one or more other channels as well. So it can be done. But usually the consequences of divided attention are not as immediately serious in an airplane as when driving a car.
    Cranky

  13. It would be instructive to see DUI law applied to cell phone users. What better way to reform a terribly punitive system that fails to fix anything?

  14. Geeze, Serial, just wait a few years, and the problem is going to solve itself. We're going to have self-driving automobiles hitting the market soon, you know. As in, within a handful of years. "Don't just do something, stand there!"
    Anyway, the point is, there's a whole continuum of "risky" things people can do while driving, or at other times. And it's not clear to me that Mark or your notion of where on that continuum we ought to be drawing the line deserves to prevail.

  15. But we're not going to get them. Legislatures will approve hands-free phones, guys with small *penii* will buy trucks with large grills, enforcement will remain cosmetic and sporadic, and drivers will continue to talk on the phone as they rush hither and yon on errands that should have been done with the phone at home.
    … and people who don't have a clue as to how Latin forms plurals will continue to pretend that they do, thereby demolishing their argument.
    There's nothing that makes you look uniformed and worth ignoring faster than an attempt to utilize vocabulary or grammar incorrectly. (Yeah, yeah, this is pedantry, but this ii business is just idiocy.)

  16. Geeze, Serial, just wait a few years, and the problem is going to solve itself. We're going to have self-driving automobiles hitting the market soon, you know. As in, within a handful of years. "Don't just do something, stand there!"
    ………………….
    I'm not sure I buy this.
    Cars have had the ability, for some years now, to plug a phone into the audio system. This may not be perfect in terms of divided attention etc, but it does solve the problem of fumbling for the phone when it rings, and of using a hand to hold it. It also goes some way to addressing the audio quality problem.
    BUT this was and remains a high-end option, even though it costs basically nothing (maybe five dollars for the connector, wiring, and microphone).
    I don't think there has ever been a case where the auto manufacturers have done something across all models because it is the right thing to do (as in increases safety, or increases everyone's quality of life) without being forced to do so by law.

  17. I think that this bill is overkill; here's why.
    I am not a particularly good driver; I would not talk on the phone while driving in town or in traffic–I am a bad enough driver without the distraction. But every month or so, I drive to another office. It's an hour and a half, on a limited access road where there is often no vehicles in sight–and I know where the exits are. I often talk on the phone on that trip.
    Different kinds of driving have different levels of attention demand.

  18. "I'd like to see someone with the right lab setup test this conjecture…"
    Strayer did just that at U of Utah and the cellular driver did much worse.

  19. I've felt for some time that it's harder to pay attention to the road while on the cell phone than while talking to someone in the car because both people share the environment and that changes expectations for when the driver will and won't listen. And I agree with Mark the experiment described should be done.
    But, it is possible we'll learn as a culture (to the extent we can be said to have one here in the good old U.S. of A.) how to talk on the cell phone and drive at the same time. This is in sync with the point Cranky Observer makes. In which case, the problem could go a way in a decade or so and after some unknown number of accidents and deaths.
    No comment as to whether or not it's worth waiting for.

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