Imagine driving into town. Your cell phone beeps and you take the call on your hands-free headset. You’re flagged down by the police, fined, have your driving privileges revoked and your car impounded. That’s what they do when you drink and drive. But you weren’t drinking, you just used your phone.
It used to be hard to imagine being arrested for driving and phoning. In spite of the evidence that driving while under the influence of a phone is equivalent to drinking and driving, we don’t want to give up our right to be talking. If only we could find a way to do it without having our driving impaired.
How impaired is it? According to a National Safety Council article, an estimated one in four crashes involves cell phone use. In tests on driving simulators, subjects who used the phone deteriorated just as if they were legally intoxicated. Their mistakes increased and their reactions slowed. This was regardless of whether the phone was handheld or hands-free. The problem is not just that your hands are busy. There’s something in the telephone conversation itself that affects one’s ability to drive safely.
Part of the problem is the simple act of trying to multitask, according to a New Atlantis article on the myth of multitasking. The way we do that is by switching back and forth among the tasks, because we can’t do everything at once and do any one thing well. The act of switching between tasks takes time; our brains just can’t do it instantly. The result is that we end up spending a lot of time between tasks, not attending to any of them.
From the New Atlantis:
Multitasking might also be taking a toll on the economy. One study by researchers at the University of California at Irvine monitored interruptions among office workers; they found that workers took an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or answering e-mail and return to their original task. Discussing multitasking with the New York Times in 2007, Jonathan B. Spira, an analyst at the business research firm Basex, estimated that extreme multitasking — information overload — costs the U.S. economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity.
Another problem is that we tend to give a lot of attention to conversation. It’s an important aspect of our lives. Our brains automatically give it a high priority. That means there’s less attention available for driving.
Many countries have enacted legislation on cell phones in cars. It ranges from an outright ban on using one in a moving vehicle to allowing unlimited usage, but penalizing the phone user if there’s an accident. Legislators won’t be able to ignore the statistics. They’ll have to come up with some kind of response to the growing damage, injury and death caused by phoning and driving. Let’s hope it solves the problem without taking away our phones. The solution might be hands-free driving.