Driving and cell phones

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.

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.

47 thoughts on “Driving and cell phones”

  1. we have to learn appropriate behavior and use it

    Good luck with that. We can’t get even half the drivers to use turn signals or come to full stops at intersections, and half of those who do stop just sit there chatting away, waiting for the stop sign to turn green, oblivious when it’s their turn to go. Irresponsible self-absorbed morons with uncontrollable phone addictions are a solid majority on the roadways. People are not the least bit ashamed or embarrassed to be seen in public operating a two-ton potential death machine as if they had no idea what they’re doing. Self-driving cars can’t come soon enough, because most human drivers are already on non-existent auto-pilot as it is.

  2. Might be smart public policy to shift the funding currently going to fight a “drug war” to fighting criminally negligent cell phone use behind the wheel. It would definitely save far more lives than, say, locking up marijuana users.

    Then again, the “drug war” is hardly a viable model of implementing good social policy.

    How about a chip in new cars that detects whether the car is in motion and advises callers that the number is not available and please leave a message to callers, while preventing outbound call being made, except to 911?

    1. What Allen K said. I have used a cell phone in a moving car responsibly and safely. The way I did it was to make the call while someone else was driving.

      1. Not necessarily a clean solution. I’ve listened into plenty of phone calls and have found myself disturbed and distracted by them at times. Fortunately not behind the wheel. I don’t know that there’s a study yet on distraction when listening to one side of the call, but I’d better it would be some number substantially greater than zero, but far short of 100% correlation with being a first party to the call.

        I certainly agree that it’s the driver’s responsibility to stay on task and avoid being distracted. Unfortunately, everyday we see the results of trusting people left to take responsibility for themselves. It can be especially deadly when operating a two-ton machine at highway speeds. I’d suggest we’re all better off waiting for the driverless car on this question than in ensuring creative ways to use our personal freedom against the best interests of others.

        Also, as a radio hobbiest myself I’m not suggesting a jammer, which is very problematic for other reasons, but a device internal to the phone itself that prevents calling and answering in connection with some sort of RFID interaction with the vehicle.

  3. Listening to the radio or to an adult passenger is still distracting, just a lot less so than the other examples. There are studies on this, and the results are statistically significant even though the effects are much smaller than the distractions that are considered dangerous.

    On the other hand, a *complete* lack of distractions only improves driving attention for a limited period. As the time behind the wheel gets longer, that radio can become a net benefit.

  4. How about recognizing that it’s not actually necessary to make all human activities 100.00000000% safe, and that the whole matter is going to become moot in a few years anyway as self-driving cars start taking over the market? And just settle for banning drivers texting, and let them continue to talk?

    1. Brett,
      My freedom to drive ends when I become distracted and dangerous behind the wheel just as surely as it does when I become too intoxicated to drive.

      Your comment also ignores the science demonstrating that yakking on the phone while driving is at least as dangerous as slamming back a couple of stiff drinks. I couldn’t agree more that there’s nothing we can make 100% safe and the government frequently spends a lot of misguided effort for marginal benefit. But the evidence of the dangers of cell phone use while driving are pretty unambiguous and damning.

      Probably best to move onto the battle over whether open drinks will be allowed in self-driving cars.

      1. You become dangerous behind the wheel if you sneeze, or if you’re tired, too. What’s your end objective here, to make the conditions for driving a car as stringent as for piloting a 747?

        1. Are we allowed to make any regulations about preventing people from being dangerous to others? Note that the data is showing that cell phone usage while driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. Are you saying that we should repeal the laws on the latter?

        2. Nope, if my comments have an objective it’s to deal with known significant sources of hazards or new hazards that significantly increase existing hazards.

          AFAIK, there has been no epidemic of sneezing-caused accidents on our highways. Cell phones have a considerably worse record. Moreover, we usually have no choice about sneezing, but we do have considerable choice about answering the phone. I presume you have heard of voice mail?

          As for sleep-impaired or other fatigued driving, that is a significant contributor to accidents. It’s already illegal in most states AFAIK, although can be hard to prove depending on circumstances. Surely you’re not suggested a campaign to free the nodding off drivers from the boot heels of oppressive government?

          BTW, I am significantly affected at times by my own sleep disorder. I’m also smart and responsible enough to not to attempt to drive under those circumstances, so my dog’s in this fight as much as anyone’s here.

        3. Brett,
          I don’t choose to sneeze. And I’m pretty sure it’s already illegal to operate a motor vehicle in a state of fatigue sufficient to impair attention and motor control.

          … what was your point meant to be, exactly?

    2. How about recognizing that it’s not actually necessary to make all human activities 100.00000000% safe

      How about recognizing that as usual you’re relying on a straw-man argument here?

      Nobody is talking about making “all human activities 100.00000000% safe”. The adults here are talking about how to encourage people to avoid unnecessary distractions while they’re in control of a one (or more) ton object moving at high speed through a space shared with other human beings.

    3. Self-driving cars will take over the market in a few years? You are quite the optimist. I remember reading an article when I was 8 (I think it was in Scientific American) predicting the widespread use of flying cars by 2005. I think we will probably have prototypes that can share roads without too many problems in a few years… the development and implementation of the actual infrastructure will probably be expensive and slow. I don’t think the future can be used as a reason to avoid attending to the present in this case.

      1. Not to mention, whatever happens in the new-car market (and Brett’s rather a tad optimistic there), late-model cars won’t take over the roads for a long, long time. I drive a car that’s a dozen years old and in quite good shape; barring mishap (or outrageous good fortune) I see no reason I’d stop driving it in the next ten years – certainly no reason I’d spend money to do so. And I could afford a new car if necessary; many are less fortunate.

  5. By way of totally missing the actual point of the post: I thought MLB contracts didn’t allow radio stations to stream their live game coverage? I admit I haven’t looked recently.

    1. They don’t permit it in order to allow MLB to stream it themselves as a subscription service.

  6. The technology for this kind of thing is easy. It would probably take about a day for a good coder to put together an app that reads a smartphone’s gps ans puts the phone in voicemail or auto-reply mode when traveling in a car. And yet no one does it. In my experience, though, many of the people who regularly have phone conversations in their cars really aren’t doing it in interactive mode.

    1. For the third time in this 10-comment thread… the problem with that is that it prevents non-drivers from using their phones, too. While it no doubt adds a slight degree of distraction to have someone else in the car using a phone (very slight if they’re texting or listening to voicemail), the risk is much much lower than when it’s the driver losing the phone.

      Your proposed solution would solve the problem of drivers using phones (good) but would create the new problem of non-drivers being unable to use phones (bad). Maybe it’s worth the price, but that price would have to be part of the debate.

  7. The proposed solution — an uncomplicated way to turn on a new voicemail message and/or automatic text reply — should be able to be implemented as an app for smartphones but wouldn’t affect people who (like the woman I used to car pool with) who still use a simpler device with voice and text capabilities. Apple and Android might be persuaded to add it to the OS as a native application. People like me would buy it and use it but people like the one in my car pool example would not.

    The problem I see is that the wireless carriers have no incentive to do something which would have the effect of reducing billable minutes. To be sure they would not be selling very many minutes to a dead person but the loss of revenue from all the others could be significant. I am convinced that this is why they continue to deny that there is a problem that can’t be solved by hands-free or voice-text.

      1. I would never use it. Never. Not once. It’s a completely stupid idea. I like to talk while I drive. Though I think the research must be flawed in some way since it’s so completely counter my experience, I don’t really care. The safety risk is nothing compared to the convenience and pleasure I get being able to keep in touch with people during my long commute.

        1. TQ, would you defer to someone who gets a lot of pleasure and convenience driving home from a bar at .08 on the same grounds?

        2. Gosh, I’m torn between hoping you die an excruciating death at the hands of a distracted driver and hoping that you live a long life after watching your children die excruciating deaths at the hands of a distracted driver, perhaps you yourself if there was a just God. Sounds awful, but I really don’t care. The ugliness of those thoughts is nothing compared to what you have expressed so casually.

        3. Though I think the research must be flawed in some way since it’s so completely counter my experience,….

          TQ, what you don’t seem to understand is that your experience is not at all comparable to what everyone else you encounter on the road experiences. You just don’t know it because you can’t be bothered to pay attention to your surroundings and what you’re doing, and are completely oblivious to consequences of your irresponsible driving.

          I don’t really care. The safety risk is nothing compared to the convenience and pleasure I get being able to keep in touch with people during my long commute.

          Please. The “I really don’t care” bit is redundant: everyone you encounter on the road is already fully aware of that. In placing the importance of your convenience and pleasure so far above the safety risk to everyone else you may encounter in public while driving, you have demonstrated publicly, once again, that you lack the maturity we all should be able to expect from someone licensed to operate a motor vehicle.

          I’m going to join in with JMG on this one: May your cell-phone battery short out and catch fire to your hair while driving alone on a deserted mountain pass without guardrails.

  8. The cartel carriers’ policy is that anything that restricts phone usage is bad and forget about the consequences. Kinda like Detroit and the whole seat belt/air bag thing years ago.

    But, I can’t let the self driving car thing go by without comment.

    IMHO, we will see a transforming self driving event(s) very soon now, old predictions of flying cars allegedly to the contrary.

    This is going to be like the GPS revolution. Remember when you had to get maps to find your way around? It seems like a century ago but it was really just a few years back from today.

    Once a very few have the technology and it is seen to work the push will be on to implement it (on jammed freeways at first) with speed. Because it will decrease travel time–a lot; and increase road capacity–a lot. Someday soon I expect to see a sign at the entrance ramp for the San Diego Freeway–self-drivers only.

    Once we have plug in self driving units–kinda like the GPS unit I just bought for $60 that does what a dedicated three grand system did a few years ago–the tipping point will be here.

    Wonder what that means for, say, drunk driving enforcement and the I have to drive a powerful car ads?

    1. I really wonder about how this will work (the self-driving car thing).

      I live in a very rural area (northern New England) with a lot of small winding roads, a lot of dirt roads, and pretty bad driving conditions for half the year (snow and ice).

      Is my hypothetical self-driving car only going to be able to drive itself on the major highways, and only during good conditions? Will I need to take over manual control when I switch onto local roads?

      How much of my car’s self-driving is based on existing data on the road network (i.e., a spatial database showing exactly where the pavement is, where the centerline is, etc.) and how much is based on real-time sensors onboard the car?

      I haven’t really read much about this, though I did watch the video of google driving that blind guy around a while back. If there’s a good written source that explains exactly how self-driving cars will work, and how they’ll cope with all the obvious hazards, and what kinds of supporting infrastructure would be needed, I’d love to read it.

      1. For example: does the car need to be able to see lines on the pavement to tell where the lanes are? The road I live on, one of the busiest roads around here with probably several thousand vehicle-trips per day, has no markings at all.

      2. Presumably there will initially be ¨driverless safe¨ zones with standardised road features, starting with interstates and the like. Building a car that can cope as wel as a human with every possible current road environment is a pipe dream. But putting features analogous to cat´s eyes in existing highways is straightforward.

  9. The partial solution I’ve been pushing is a “delay” button on the car or phone, or as a voice command, that adds a one-second delay after each person speaks, like we used to have for international calls. This lets the driver put more effort into driving, and possibly more importantly it also signals to the other person that he/she might want to slow down the conversation, stop talking for a bit, or offer to call back later.

    Not a complete solution, but possibly helpful.

  10. Could someone page the Kahn-man and tell him to quit mumbling nonsense about climate “adaptation” (read: immiseration of billions) and work on a problem where economics might actually offer useful prescriptions, like how do you get monkeys piloting lethal vehicles to feel a sufficient incentive to avoid adding a proven distraction of great magnitude to the mix?

    Just as with other completely embedded technologies like guns and sugar, the monkeys are not about to give them up because the monkey mind did not evolve to judge risk accurately or use any wisdom on the question. So we need steady nudges, or even shoves, towards smarter behavior, which economics might offer. To wit, long before the self piloting cars, which are a cornucopian fantasy, we could have, today, a mandatory cellphone gps-app plus car black-box adjunct that would detect any cellphone use and a) report it to the insurance company and b) activate bright yellow warning LEDs on the front and rear license plates (or perhaps some color that wouldn’t get washed out by sodium vapor lighting).

    The vast majority of trips are solo and the vast vast majority of cellphone use in a car is worthless monkey chatter. Hence, the warning would alert the world to a distracted driver, and the insurance reporting would insure that the driver paid a price for the risk contribution. And if you are a passenger using a cellphone, you could do so, but you would obviously limit it to the truly urgent calls (which we seem so obsessed with imagining are the daily run of the mill use), because you would be causing law enforcement to scrutinize the car, and spending the driver’s money.

    Cellphone use in a moving vehicle is every bit as necessary as masturbating while driving. Anyone who argues that we can’t address it because it would inconvenience passengers is arguing that it’s ok to allow thousands to kill people annually to stroke their pleasure centers.

  11. Better than any of your incredibly intrusive recommendations, get used to the idea that driving is dangerous and you don’t get to live forever. Talking on cellphones is a HUGe benefit to most people and totally worth the risk. You will then say, with tiresome pedantry, that the innocent person that gets hit is blah blah blah. But, that person was talking on the phone fifteen minutes ago. There are no innocents. Everyone likes talking on the phone while they drive. Cars are dangerous. Slightly more so in the age of cellphones. The cost benefit analysis for everyone is in favor of phones.

    Here’s the really good idea: Public transportation. Lots of it.

    I know. That’s too much trouble. Nobody will fund it. Nobody will use it even though it would save huge numbers of lives and the environment as a bonus. Why not? Because the cost benefit analysis says, I’d rather risk death than walk.

    Stop the nanny state stuff. Life is full of risk. Enjoy.

    1. TQ, thank you for your candid input. We don’t get that depth of thought much here at the RBC but it’s good to be reminded now and then what a dreary place the Internet can be. Now off with you to your drudge report…

  12. Talking on the phone while driving saves you time, dying of it costs you time. Shouldn’t we inquire how the savings stack up compared to the costs? After all, it’s not like talking on the cell phone is so phenomenally dangerous that accident rates have skyrocketed. You can point to the rate of cell phone usage concurrent with accidents, but the rate of usage during non-accidents is high enough that you’ll expect some fraction of people to be on the phone when an accident that would have happened anyway occurs.

    What I’m asking for here is a sense of proportion. We can’t ban everything that makes driving a little more dangerous. We have to draw a line at some point. I’m suggesting that the evidence doesn’t justify drawing it in the same place you want it drawn.

    1. Brett, your laserlike focus on your personal welfare, and to hell with the kid on a bicycle who loses his whole future for the few minutes you save, is an enduring wonder of our comment threads. Or have you arranged to have any future car accident alone with a tree or something, and can you tell us how to do that?

      1. There is an important question of margin here. There are some people that are simply bad drivers. Distracted not just by a phone, but by the radio, by a bird flying, by, by a colorful tree. People have accidents all the time where cell phones (or drinking) are not part of the cause – it can be simply from not checking a side mirror or looking over the shoulder before changing lanes.
        Since the use of cell phones have taken off in earnest, is there actually a significant increase in driving accidents and fatalities? If not, then regulation of the phone is unlikely to significantly affect the baseline. People find and make distractions. If not a phone, then perhaps something else…
        And then there is the question of enforcement. If someone is making hands free call, there is no way for law enforcement to get that person to hang up. People can talk on the phone, they will, and there isn’t much of a way to stop them.
        Also, it is Brett, who can be rather frustrating, but to note that cell phone talking is only marginally distracting probably doesn’t warrant a response that “I bet you’ll run over a kid while on your phone.”
        A bit of a non-sequiter here; after a DWI seminar by a police officer in a hands-free jurisdiction, the officer had gone over the (new) hands-free / no cell phone law and its reasons. I asked him if the law applied broadly – more specifically, if I was driving while eating a cheeseburger, would I be violating the law? He said no…

    2. If the driver ‘dying of it’ was the only hazard of cell phone impaired driving, that would be more cause to encourage it’s practice than to ban it!

      1. Honestly, I do not see how the logical end of your reasoning, (That no balancing of costs and benefits can be justified.) does not end with driving being as regulated as flying a commercial airliner.

        1. Cost/Benefit analysis gets pretty ugly when the benefit is all to you and the lion’s share of the cost goes to someone else.

          But I think you misread me. The comment you responded to was meant to be humorous in a droll sort of way. And as much as phone-addicted people driving like morons annoy the crap out of me, I know better than to suggest a ban or unenforceable regulation. Public disapproval is probably the most effective deterrent we have until self-driving cars take over. That and a valve-stem remover!

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