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Distracted Driving and Cell Phones:  Hands-Free is Not Risk- Free

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month. This is a time to raise awareness of the dangers and cost of this growing epidemic.  In 2014, distracted driving in the United States alone resulted in at least:

  • 3,179 fatalities
  • 431,000 injuries (18% of all crash injuries)
Distracted Driving
In 2014, distracted driving resulted in at least 3,179 fatalities.

Did you know that 40% of American teens say that they have been in a car when the driver used a cell phone in a way that put people in danger? Expert after expert now declares distracted driving an epidemic.

According to a 2014 special article in the New England Journal of Medicine, the risk of a crash or near-crash among novice drivers increased with the performance of many secondary tasks, including texting and dialing cell phones.

The University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute’s 2012 Teen Driver Distraction Study reports that a quarter of teens respond to a text message once or more every time they drive, and 20 percent of teens and 10 percent of parents admit that they have extended, multi-message text conversations while driving.

What is Distracted Driving?

Distracted driving comprises one or more aspects: manual, visual, and/or cognitive. Cognitive distraction is the least obvious but potentially the most dangerous of the three.  Driving in general is probably the most dangerous activity you will do during a day.  The most likely cause of death for someone under the age of 25 is motor vehicle crashes; it is more likely than the next three causes combined. For someone 25 and older, motor vehicle crashes are the second most likely cause of death.  Combine driving and a cognitive distraction and you have a recipe for disaster.

Distracted Driving
Being able to multi-task is a myth

When considering the brain’s capabilities, language skills are a difficult task that takes years to perfect and are one of the first to fail as our brain ages.  Talking and listening use a lot of our brain, although we don’t realize it since it becomes a routine activity. Talking on a cell phone while hands-free or not makes no difference. Both are risky when driving because the brain is engaged in a task that is not related to driving.

The Myth of Multi-Tasking

In today’s society, there is a push to be able to “multi-task.” Many people claim they can do it effectively. But being able to multi-task is a myth. The human brain cannot perform more than one task at a time, nor can it be trained to multi-task. Studies of fighter pilots attempting to train their brain to multi-task have demonstrated the futility of it.

A brain does not multi-task, it switches tasks, sometimes in milliseconds. Instead of giving full performance to two tasks, it choses which task the person has “said” is more important, and then focuses on it.  If necessary, the brain will switch back to another task when something happens. You can tell when the person you are speaking to on the other end of the phone is not fully engaged in the call—you get short answers, or “uh-huh” or “mmmm.”  As soon as you point out to the person that he or she is not listening, the brain changes the focus, you get their full attention, and if that person is driving, it is the attention to driving that suffers.

A Grand Illusion

As humans, we have the ability to fool ourselves; it is like a Grand Illusion.  We believe we see everything in front of us, but in actuality we do not have 180-degree vision.  The brain actually fills in the details.  Add to that the “task switching” the brain is doing, and you start to understand just how much of what is happening is not being recognized by the brain.

Distracted Driving
Each of these beliefs has been shown to be false

Distracted Driving and Cell Phones: More Myths

One thing that has not fooled the scientists who deal with the brain are cell phones and cognitive distraction.  The research is clear: it creates an increased risk.  Based on the research, the best answer to this issue is a cell phone ban while the person is driving. Those opposed to a ban raise a variety of claims, including:

  • Decreased business productivity
  • Lack of public support
  • Enforcement difficulties

They are additional myths.  Fortune 500 companies that have imposed cell phone bans have seen no reduction in productivity, but they have seen a decrease in crashes and property damage.  Surveys have shown that over two-thirds of the public supports a full cell phone ban, and law enforcement has been able find ways to successfully enforce current laws regarding cell phone limitations.

A common question asked when discussing cell phones and driving is what about passengers in the car? After all, talking on the phone is just like talking to a passenger, right?  That is absolutely wrong!  For an adult, there are significant differences between having a conversation with passenger in the car and talking on a cell phone.  With a passenger, she or he is another set of eyes and able to spot and point out driving hazards.  In fact, a passenger can recognize when traffic is challenging and just stop talking.  None of that is true during a cell phone conversation.

Distracted Driving
Time to be proactive and institute a ban on using a cell phone while driving.

Time to be Proactive

It is time to have a social stigma attached to driving while using a cell phone, just as it now is socially unacceptable to drink too much and drive.  One way to start that change is for parents to model for their children what it is to be a safe driver, which includes not using a cell phone while driving. Another way is to promote a no cell phone while driving policy at work.  In the meantime, it is time for all of us to ask the real question: “What makes this phone call so important that I am going to risk my life and the lives of others.”

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