Last month we highlighted a study from Carnegie Mellon and the LES suggesting that cell-phone use doesn’t cause more car crashes. Readers pushed back with other findings. Now Kevin Drum digests a new study (pdf) from the University of Utah:
In general, the authors conclude that hands-free talking isn’t worse than talking on a handset, but neither is it any better: “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. Compared to single-task conditions, cell-phone drivers’ brake reaction times were slower and they took longer to recover the speed that was lost following braking.”
The problem with cell phones has never been primarily about taking your eyes off the road to dial, or about the dexterity required to hold a handset to your ear. It’s all about cognitive distraction, and the study’s authors report that drivers who do a lot of talking on cell phones don’t get any better at it: “Real-world experience using a cell phone while driving did not make the so-called experts any better at multitasking than the novices.”
Michael O’Hare’s take on the findings:
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.