If you’ve any lingering doubts about what can happen to a driver distracted by a phone (hands-free or hand-held, from the brain’s point of view it’s essentially the same), consider the recent case of a fatal plane/helicopter collision over the Hudson River in New York.
The board’s data reinforce earlier indications that a distracted controller, engaged in a personal phone call while on duty and juggling various tasks, failed to keep proper track of the small, propeller-powered plane. The controller, Carlyle Turner, later told investigator he didn’t see or hear radar-system warnings about an impending collision, the documents indicate.
According to a transcript released Wednesday, Mr. Turner was on a personal call for about 2 1/2 minutes. Five seconds before impact, he hung up by telling the female friend on the call: “Let me straighten … stuff out.”
That five seconds number struck me, for I had just heard, at the Edmonton conference, from a human factors researcher mentioning a figure noted in one study that the time between the onset of conditions that needed response and the crash itself was in most cases five seconds or less (which intuitively makes sense).
But the main point is that here was a highly trained professional, engaged in a personal call, which subsequently caused him to miss something that should have been on his radar, as it were — particularly as alarms were sounded. It’s likely his eyes were even on the vessels in question, as he realized, too late, however (owing to divided attention), he had to “straighten stuff out.” Now extrapolate that to the less highly trained drivers on the (more crowded) road, brimming with overconfidence, and you begin to see the problem. And yes, there were other factors behind the crash — failure to observe protocol by at least one pilot, lack of prescriptive glasses by another controller — but this is the point in implementing redundant safety systems: An error can be observed by someone else and corrected, the same way a non-distracted driver can (sometimes) compensate for a distracted driver.