The Two Mysteries of Driving with a Hands-Free Cell Phone

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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

23 thoughts on “The Two Mysteries of Driving with a Hands-Free Cell Phone”

  1. Isn’t a further reason people do not recognize these risks that they have been told by many authoritative voices that hands free is the safe way to cell while driving? Many jurisdictions have laws that prohibit using a handset and allow hands free. And these laws often come with public education campaigns explaining the need to go hands free.

  2. Sam — that’s a good point…such authoritative voices are ultimately people, and are therefore subject to the same perceptual distortions as the rest of the humanity, but they have more power than most to pass those distortions on to others.

  3. Don’t forget wishful thinking. People WANT to believe it, so they try hard to believe it.

    For me, I hate talking on the phone, so I’m ready to believe it’s not safe.

  4. I won’t use a cellphone, while driving, period. The first time I tried it, my attention disappeared into the conversation, and I scared the living daylights out of myself, with several minutes of complete obliviousness to the road ahead.

    What I observe in others, though, is people driving in the most routine way imaginable, while talking on their cellphones — going into automaton mode. In some important ways, their driving may actually improve, as the aggressiveness and impulsiveness, born of frustration and boredom, drains away.

    That may not be a “policy-relevant” observation, anymore than the fact that the first drink actually improves many people’s driving performance, is considered relevant to the problem of a few people, driving while seriously intoxicated. And, of course, the circumstances in which being an automaton while driving is an improvement can give way, without prior notice, to circumstances in which it is, decidedly, not a good thing; one might as well search for a way that motorcyclists could don helmets only when planning to have an accident.

    The policy-relevant target-people do not have reliable judgment or self-control in the circumstances that matter most to the relatively rare events, where severe risks are realized. And, the most effective way to alter the behavior of the policy-relevant target audience, may well be a broad, simple norm, relentlessly propagandized and very selectively and randomly enforced with legal sanction.

  5. I find any article like this, without numbers, very frustrating.
    “Why driving while using such a phone is *so* dangerous”
    How dangerous is “so” dangerous? And could the improved so engendered better be achieved through, for example, making radar/sonar pre-collision detectors on cars mandatory?

    I don’t want to come across as a mindless libertarian, that’s not my point. My point IS that everything in life has benefits weighed against side-effects, and when you start to use the phrasing that was used in this article, you switch from the engineer’s reasonable analysis of comparing costs against benefits to the religious zealot’s magical thinking that if we all perform the correct rites and rid the world of this sin, everything will be right with us.

  6. > I don’t want to come across as a mindless libertarian, that’s not
    > my point. My point IS that everything in life has benefits weighed
    > against side-effects,

    Help me understand what the “benefits” of a driver using a cell phone are to the other drivers, vehicles, and pedestrians that are hit (and possibly killed or maimed) that outweigh the risks which the cell-talking driver has imposed on them without their agreement?


  7. Cranky, this is a silly argument and you know it.
    If we take it to its logical conclusion, we would ban driving altogether. After all what are the benefits to a pedestrian to have cars zipping by them at high speed. But we look at society as a whole and conclude that most of us are both drivers and pedestrians at certain times, so overall cars are an acceptable risk.

    Sure, the benefits to being able to talk while driving are not earth-shattering — but they do exist, from the obvious (emergency calls, reporting accidents and crime, etc) to simply making society more efficient (being told of poor traffic conditions, or buy this extra thing on your way to the shops). Those have to be balanced against exactly how much extra damage are we talking.

    We do this sort of thing ALL the time. After all, we’d surely save some lives by reducing every speed limit by 5 mph — and the resultant inconvenience would only be quantitative, not qualitative.

  8. In my crusade to reduce verbiage, especially unnecessary verbiage, I take M Handley to task for the 2 word phrase mindless libertarian. The adjective, “mindless” adds nothing to our understanding.

  9. On this point, a personal anecdote a few years ago affected my thinking. An acquaintance used to listen to novels on tape while driving. She gave it up when she once got so engrossed in an exciting episode that she nearly had a serious accident. Use of her hands had nothing to do with it. I nearly always have music or talk radio on in the car — various passive noise that has little chance of roping me in that dangerously. I am am eager to see cell phone use by drivers on my roads drastically limited. As for libertarians, I suspect they are pissed because the gummint tells them which side of the road they have to drive on.

  10. Even better: Talking on a cell phone while parsing the video screen of the navigation system in the dash that is also talking to you. No one really needs “numbers” to know this behavior is dangerous. As for cost vs. benefits? How about price vs. value? Yeah, driving, walking, living are risky. But the value of one life lost because some dumbass is talking or texting while driving is priceless.

  11. Maynard,

    I believe this refers to the study that concludes driving while phoning is very dangerous.

    It got a fair amount of play in the media because the results were so dramatic. There might have been others since. You can look it up if you want numbers.

    I have to say that it echoes my experience. Despite having a very safe driving record and significantly more experience than average, about 15 years ago I was talking to a client on the phone and didn’t notice that a school bus had stopped on the other side of the road and had its lights flashing. I haven’t carried on a phone conversation while driving since.

  12. Driving while talking on a handset is illegal in California, yet I rarely fail to see at least four people doing it in a day in the small towns and cities I frequent. (If cycling, more.) I seem to have adopted a policy of staring at drivers using handsets, especially in the company of my children.

    What frightens me most about (legal) handsfree cell talkers from the perspective of potential victim is that you so often can’t tell they’re on the phone until they’ve done something moronic. I say this as someone who habitually drives around with the thing stuck in my ear.

    I claim a policy of only talking in ‘cruise mode,’ but that’s more when I feel comfortable making calls. Here in reality, my decision to take a given call is almost entirely driven by the perceived ‘importance’ of the call – even though the conditions that make it hard to drive safely while on the phone also make it much harder to successfully engage an ‘important’ call. I should just abjure the phone while driving in town. I suspect I am like many people, however, in that I experience persistent small doses of reinforcement from answering my phone, but discount, disregard or never notice the ways my driving may thereby have become more hazardous to my fellow humans. It’s no wonder we choose badly given how poor we are at evaluating unlikely but nasty hazards.

    A few other things factor into this problem, though: For one, there is clearly a range of capacity among drivers and cell phone users, and some drivers probably can handle both at once, especially with training. Police officers, for example, routinely use phones and radios while driving safely well above posted speed limits. For another, peoples’ self-evaluations are notoriously lousy, with both good and bad drivers sure they’re good. (I think Bruce was saying this in part but not quite sure.)

  13. Can a mindless libertarian make a distinction between driving drunk and driving while on a cell phone?

    Both are unnecessary, and both increase the danger to others. If both were equally dangerous, there would be no slippery slope, right?
    What if DUIC (Driving Under Influence of Cell) was 75% of the danger, or even 25%?

    As for the speed limit, we do pick some value that attempts to balance utility with safety. It’s just what we do – balance issues.

  14. I’m a ‘good’ driver because I’m an attentive one. And I’m a ‘very good’ multitasker, much better than average. The first couple of times I tried to carry on a cell conversation while driving (and I was using a headset) convinced me that there is no way I can safely drive and use a phone simultaneously. I don’t know what the difference is between chatting with a passenger and being on the phone, but there is one. I can do any number of other things while being on the phone, but driving isn’t one of them! I know that there are no doubt people who can safely do what I cannot, but I suspect that many people who claim they can are kidding themselves.

  15. I’ll just continue to push my little idea here – a one-second delay button/option that drivers can activate. This can help reassert driving as the action the driver should be giving the most attention to, and might help the other party realize the conversation should slow down or volunteer to have it wait for another time.

  16. The science of multitasking ain’t what multitaskers think it is:
    From the Abstract: “Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.”

    I have passed this paper out to my first-year medical students the past two years. They don’t believe it either.

  17. This is a symptom of a larger problem: the belief that it is important to be productive all the time. Among white collar professionals, the idea has taken hold that any moment in which you are not conducting business is non-productive, and that this is a bad thing. I suspect that, if a law against talking on a phone while driving were actually enforced, you’d find that the people just chatting would cut way back on their use. You’ll never eliminate it, but like drunk driving, it would make a big difference.

    The two exceptions are parents and people conducting business. I don’t think you will ever convince either group to change this behavior unless there is a much broader cultural change. On the one hand, the idea that kids deserve and need more autonomy. On the other, that we don’t all need to grind ourselves into the dirt making sure that we’re being productive for the company every waking second. Both of these changes are desirable for reasons far beyond getting drivers to stop using the phone. Neither one of them is going to happen.

  18. I’m a terrible multitasker, especially since the chemo. (Chemo brain is real.) That said, I’ll occasionally complete a short call on the phone while driving, but only if I’m parked at a traffic light.

    That said, is this an argument for banning cell phone use in cars, or improving telephone audio quality?

  19. Bev M. has it right. If I have to take a call while driving, I pull to the side of the road. I don’t even like listening to conference calls hands free while driving. If I have a conference call, I’ll stop at the rest stop or diner, get a cup of coffee and hear the call. There is something different about the nature of the distraction of a phone call that sets it apart from the radio or CD player, even though I don’t fully understand the nature of that difference. And it appears that texting is even worse.

  20. For whatever reason, I’ve always “known” (as in believed) that talking on my cell while driving seriously impaired my driving. Then I saw a mythbusters episode which confirmed what I thought (not that Mythbusters is the same as a proper study). I can’t explain it, but there’s a difference between a converation one the phone and in person w/a passenger. It’s clear as day to me. I do everything I can do avoid using my cell in the car. I have had short conversations, but now regret even those.

    Maybe I notice the difference b/c I typically focus all or nearly all of my attention on driving. I’m a bit obsessive about *paying attention* when operating a vehicle weighing tons and moving a great speed.

  21. Poor call quality is definitely not the only problem. A big source of danger comes from getting too sucked into the call. You might be able to go “uh huh, uh huh” as someone babbles about their day or lists groceries, but anything you have to actually think about and focus on will be very distracting. On a car trip with an audio book on, for my time driving (outside a straight, empty freeway) I can’t follow the book at all. I also have noticed a talking passenger can be very distracting; I’m surprised everyone’s so unconcerned about that.

    In response to TQ, you are a shithead. Driving while tired is well known to be dangerous. You’re not the first guy to figure that out. At least in San Diego, we have public service announcements on it (helpfully aired by the Mexican government). So don’t even bother throwing that decoy out. The reason it’s not illegal is because such a law would be hard as hell to establish and enforce. And yes, you have some control over how tired you are and whether you drive in that state. You are the textbook example of the headset-wearing workaholic scorned above, and you don’t even see it. I’m sorry if behaving considerately and responsibly regarding others’ safety would hold back your (apparently shitty) career (and your poor family!) back by one smidge. The rest of us do it anyway.

  22. I use to see DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) bus drivers engaging in what appeared to be shift long conversations on their cell phones. Haven’t seen any lately. Perhaps local ordnances and/or DART management clamped down on it. The casual talkers didn’t bother me much, but the drivers who seem to be trying to solve all their personal problems over the phone made me a bit nervous.

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