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The Dubious Disctinction Between “Good” and “Bad” Drivers on Cell-Phones

I was bothered by this assertion in an editorial on cell-phones in cars:

Motorists who drive carelessly while on the phone — we’ve all seen them — are a hazard and should be penalized. The same is true for those who drive carelessly while operating their CD players, adjusting their GPS devices or fussing with their kids.

But a motorist driving attentively at a lawful speed on a safe, straight stretch of Interstate 5 should not be pulled over because of a telephone conversation.

Yes, obviously people driving recklessly, whether distracted or not, should be pulled over. But to assert that a motorist “driving attentively” on a “safe, straight stretch” of road while talking on a phone is beyond concern is a gross oversimplification of the emerging science.

It reminds me of a night, many years ago, when I was much younger and much more car-dependent (two conditions I do not long to return to), when I drove home in what can only be called a state of substantial intoxication — something I only became dimly aware of a number of minutes into the trip. Somewhat panicked, I rigorously drove the speed limit, and locked my attention on the road — “a safe, straight stretch” (I’ve said it before, “safe” is a relative term; the only objectively safe road is the one that’s never traveled).

In any case, by any external measure, I was just another law-abiding, prudent motorist. The fact was, however, that my physical impairments began with the first drink of the night and only got progressively worse, and that I very likely may have not been able to stop in the face of an unexpected “path intrusion,” or not seen a pedestrian in the crosswalk in time to react, etc. But I would not have been readily aware of the scale of this performance decrement, as all my attention was on keeping between the lanes and going the speed limit — which is not necessarily the same thing as safe, attentive driving. Of course, I may indeed have been drifting across lanes; but this feedback is not something always immediately apparent to drunk drivers.

This is the condition that cell-phone conversation presents. Even if there is not obvious “fiddling” with the phone (at least the person is aware of their distraction in that case) or drifting across lanes, there is still some portion of mental workload — higher than one would devote to a billboard, a passenger, or the radio — being dedicated to the task. The driver may still have enough left to operate the car in a seemingly effective manner, but it still leaves open the very good possibility that their performance would be impaired if something out of the ordinary were to happen. To our minds, we may be driving fine, by a certain measure, but just as we are fully unable to measure our own extent of distraction (often, one only realizes this afterward, as the miles traveled while talking have suddenly vanished from recollection, a sign of cognitive shedding), we also cannot predict how that distraction would leave us equipped to react to something unexpected. A car traveling the speed limit and staying within lanes is safe until the driver rear-ends someone who has unexpectedly come to a stop on the highway.

I am reminded of another good excerpt from a paper I referenced earlier this week, by Peter Hancock and colleagues, “On the philosophical foundations of driving distraction and the distracted driver,” in a recent book titled Driver Distraction: Theory, Effects, and Mitigation:

Driving, as we have seen, is a satisficing task. It is one in which all drivers frequently, and on certain occasions necessarily, fail to maintain their attention toward the “correct” source of attraction. Infrequently and unpredictably, these momentary failures encounter the precise environmental circumstances that induce collision. In Haddon’s terms, we “meet the tiger.” Society is content, in general, to chastise those unlucky drivers who find themselves involved in these rare collisions. This does not, of course, exempt those drivers who consciously make the decision to neglect to neglect their responsibilities. However, if collisions became more frequent by several orders of magnitude, society would not single out these ‘bad’ individuals but would seek to make corrections at a systemic level. However, we have been generally content to ratify our collective, institutional schizophrenia, which ‘blames’ the ‘bad’ drivers while encouraging the production of ever greater numbers of technologies that inevitably redirect drivers’ attention from the ever more satisficed task of vehicle control.

The editorial I referred to in the opening sentences wants to make this easy distinction between the “good” and “bad” driver. But it is not so clear; there are many “good” intoxicated drivers who become “bad” only when their blood is analyzed at a crash scene. There is also the problem of ethics: The individual driver may think talking on the phone is a good idea because they’ve done it “all the time” and they do it safely. But what is the moral consequence of participating in a behavior with known negative consequences for driving performance to other people? Already, just by getting behind the wheel, we are doing one of the few things in our life by which we easily have the capability to take someone’s life, accidentally or not; what is the ethical dimension to raising that likelihood, even marginally?

There is always the rejoinder, but why haven’t we seen a big increase in crashes and fatalities with phone use? The first point is there have been any number of fatalities already attributed to cell-phones; the second point is that most people do not talk most of the time, leaving more aware drivers to account for others’ mistakes — as a generation raised on Twitter hits the road it’s anyone’s guess. Another issue is that, perhaps through sheer luck, a majority of drunks make it home every night (should we thus do away with DUI?) And cars of course keep getting safer, which is no consolation to anyone outside the car, a condition common to most of us, even in America. In any case, this line of inquiry misstates the problem. The real question is not why there hasn’t been an increase but why we haven’t seen a great decline in this country (the recent small decline one was mostly due to economic factors) of traffic fatalities? Yes, driving per mile has become ever safer, but per-head of population the number killed is stubbornly similar to decades past. With each increase in car and road safety we seem to find new ways to make our own performance a touch more dangerous.

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This entry was posted on Friday, February 27th, 2009 at 10:19 am and is filed under Drivers, Traffic Enforcement, Traffic Laws. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

9 Responses to “The Dubious Disctinction Between “Good” and “Bad” Drivers on Cell-Phones”

  1. Jack Says:

    I once witnessed a real estate agent (sign on car door) talking on her cell phone while driving on “a safe, straight stretch” (Congress on the south side of Chicago’s Loop) of road and run five red lights in a row. Amazingly she went through every intersection without incident and then stopped at red light #6. I felt I witnessed a miracle. Granted many may characterize Congress as anything but safe but it does say mountains of what drivers think is a “safe” activity in an area with numerous pedestrians and other vehicles.

  2. Tom Says:

    Bravo. Mr. Vanderbilt that was a masterpiece.

  3. Joel Says:

    Not only is the “meeting the tiger” scenario a real problem, but it seems like a huge percentage of the left lane campers are cell phone talkers and I wonder how many chain-reaction rear-endings they cause by driving too slowly in the left-most lanes on the freeway.

    Hang up and drive.

    Has a nice “ring” to it and everything…

  4. mdf Says:

    Another issue is that, perhaps through sheer luck, a majority of drunks make it home every night (should we thus do away with DUI?)

    They almost certainly do. However, the dirty little fact still remains: a huge number of fatalities are directly attributed to drunk driving, and while the same can not be said for cell-phone driving.

    The real question is not why there hasn’t been an increase but why we haven’t seen a great decline in this country (the recent small decline one was mostly due to economic factors) of traffic fatalities?

    I’m not sure, but if your argument is that the “great decline” is not visible because the cell-phone drivers are filling in the hole, well, then present the evidence: simply point to the pile of cell-phoned-to-death bodies.

    I’ll also add that every time you raise this matter here, I end up googling around looking for evidence that, finally, someone has unearthed. What usually happens is that I find more support for the notion that futzing with the car-radio, or picking your nose, or any number of other ways you can distract yourself behind the wheel are larger, more demonstrable, threats than blabbing on a phone.

    How much support do you think there will be for a ban on in-car radios? Suppose that talking a cell-phone made you drive faster, not slower? Would anyone care to the point of enacting special legislation?

  5. mdf Says:

    Oh yes, to forestall the inevitable “mdf, how dare you defend wicked cell-phone drivers!”:

    Every modern legal jurisdiction already has, today, laws against “careless driving” or similar.

    Rather than getting all excited — if only because it distracts your driving — I suggest enforcement of existing law.

    And like Oregon Live, I suggest the enforcement follow common sense. Deploying enforcement resources to pick off cell-phone users in (say) the middle of Nebraska is simply silly. Even the idea of going specifically after cell-phoners is probably bad: the 15 minutes it takes to write the ticket and so forth could be better spent hunting for people who do far more damage (drunks).

    Honestly, there are far bigger problems to worry about.

  6. Tom Vanderbilt Says:

    MDF, and I wonder if you work for the wireless industry, there’s another little dirty fact: It took many decades for the science to fully come into shape that linked alcohol consumption not just with impaired driving, but increased risk of fatality; it also took another several decades for the social norm — all those people, the majority of Americans, who thought it was mildly funny at worst for Uncle Bud to get tanked and get in his Edsel — to gradually emerge that boozing it up and driving is perhaps not the best thing to do — a message that obviously hasn’t gotten through to many people (I have already implicated myself here).

    Crash-causation and fatality risks in an environment as complex and misunderstood as traffic do not simply present themselves as a “pile of bodies” — not to mention that statistically, there are more deaths attributed to cell phone related distraction and driving than any number of things that warrant public and governmental attention — peanut salmonella outbreak, anyone?

    Additionally, there’s many other things to consider — alcohol is in the blood, cell phone usage is more difficult to measure.

    As for nose-picking or playing the radio, there is a clear consensus among human factors researchers, verified in any number of studies, that those are not on par with a phone conversation while driving in terms of cognitive workload.

    I’d rather not actually have to have a law, but I’m not sure if the social norm will emerge if people are simply made aware of the risks. One simple reason I would like a law is that if I am ever struck and killed by someone talking on his phone and driving — acting negligently — that person will go to jail and my survivors can bleed them in court — rather than them skipping on an “accident.”

  7. mdf Says:

    I wonder if you work for the wireless industry

    (Amused). I don’t even own a phone.

    [drunk driving]

    I’m not sure I accept your thesis re: drunk driving. Wikipedia — admittedly not a stellar source — says, to little surprise to me, that drunk driving laws have been on the books for almost as long as their have been cars. The people who have to clean up the messes have probably known about drunks for the same period too.

    That “science” may not have been aware of this is neither here nor there: the statistics (the “bodies”) are probably available.

    I’ll research this a bit later.

    As for nose-picking or playing the radio, there is a clear consensus among human factors researchers, verified in any number of studies, that those are not on par with a phone conversation while driving in terms of cognitive workload.

    http://www.aaafoundation.org/pdf/distraction.pdf

    ~11% (of 9% of crashes) are due to fiddling with the car radio and 1.5% for the cellphone. Note that this is not a theoretical model, but actual, hard, observation (albeit, subject to biases — and a fair amount of noise). This is a 2001 study, and maybe the AAA Foundation is a mouthpiece for the cellphone industry, but I’ve found more recent results that come to similar conclusions.

    And, out of order:

    Crash-causation and fatality risks in an environment as complex and misunderstood as traffic do not simply present themselves as a “pile of bodies” [...]

    As far as I am concerned, that’s all we need to care about. If alcohol impaired a driver, but said impaired drivers, by some miracle, never caused any problem at all, why should we care? I think the debate would be furthered greatly by cleanly separating risk from reality.

  8. Tom Vanderbilt Says:

    MDF, well I’m glad to hear then that you’re not talking on your cell-phone and driving!

    But via the NSC:

    “Using cell phones while driving is a very high risk behavior with significant impact on crashes and society. More than 50 peer-reviewed scientific studies have identified the risks associated with cell phone use while driving.

    Drivers who use cell phones are four times more likely to be in a crash while using a cell phone. (1997 New England Journal of Medicine examination of hospital records and 2005 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study linking crashes to cell phone records).

    There is no difference in the cognitive distraction between hand-held and hands-free devices. (Simulator studies at the U. of Utah.)

    Cell phone use contributes to an estimated 6 percent of all crashes, which equates to 636,000 crashes, 330,000 injuries, 12,000 serious injuries and 2,600 deaths each year. (Harvard Center of Risk Analysis).

    80 percent of crashes are related to driver inattention. There are certain activities that may be more dangerous than talking on a cell phone. However, cell phone use occurs more frequently and for longer durations than other, riskier behaviors. Thus, the #1 source of driver inattention is cell phones. (Virginia Tech 100-car study for NHTSA)”

    It’s that last one, the most ambitious and realistic study to date, with its six terrabytes of data to still be crunched, with a new larger study forthcoming, that’s most telling. Yes, fiddling with the radio is not good — I once crashed that way, and controls have been moved to the wheel for that reason — but it is a very quick activity, where cell-phone conversation, while indeed less risky at any one moment comparatively, tends to go on much longer, going in and out of situations of varying driver demand, so the risk accrues.

  9. matt Says:

    I would be skeptical of studies which attempt to determine what a driver was distracted by, as I would guess most of the data would be reported by the distracted driver. A distracted driver will much more readily admit that they were distracted by something legal (eg. stereo controls, aircon controls) than by talking on a phone. Unlike other common crash factors (speed, alcohol) which can be objectively measured by investigators, it’s harder to prove someone was distracted by a phone.

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