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June 27, 2008

Putting a Stop to Car Talk

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Next Tuesday, 1 July, it will be illegal to drive in Washington state while holding a cellphone to your ear while presumably talking on it. An exception is the case of an emergency. And it is a "secondary offense," which means that cops have to have another reason for pulling you over before hitting on the phone business. Cellphone use is okay provided both hands are free for driving. Some other states have laws prohibiting use of hand-held phones in cars, and details vary.

I was reading a newspaper or Internet article dealing with the new law. It mentioned some studies indicating that driving while holding a cellphone is related to higher accident rates. What was interesting was that another study was mentioned (the source not cited) that concluded that even talking on a hands-off cellphone increased accident likelihood. I don't know if that's really true, but there seem to be studies that will "prove" almost anything a newspaper editor or politician wants to hear.

Let's assume that talking on a hands-free cellphone indeed leads to higher accident rates. So I ask: What is the difference between talking over a hands-free cellphone and talking to a passenger in the car? I say there is no difference; both can present distractions.

Therefore, in the name of public safety, I strongly urge -- no, demand -- that state legislatures immediately act to prohibit all talk in moving automobiles.

There. I feel safer already.



posted by Donald at June 27, 2008


We have the same law here in California. The hard data on driving accidents caused by cell phone usage is pretty sketchy. I read an article that pegged the percentage of such accidents in the low single digits--but this was followed by (unsupported) assertions by "experts" that the percentage was really much higher.

I think this is legislation by anecdote. Everyone's been cut off by some clown talking on his cell phone, so there oughta be a law.

Posted by: Steve on June 27, 2008 11:55 AM

No, it's safe for your passenger(s) to talk while you're driving. That's no more distracting than having the radio on. But if you reply or participate in the conversation, that should be prohibited where cell phone yakking by the driver is against the law. Certain passengers will welcome such a statute.

Posted by: Rick Darby on June 27, 2008 12:35 PM

My new scientific formula for all laws like this is:

S+ = F-

(More Safety = Less Freedom)

It's a trend.

I think soon we'll see a law that requires drivers to deploy their air bags before starting their engines.

Posted by: vanderleun on June 27, 2008 2:12 PM

My husband would be thrilled!

Posted by: Sister Wolf on June 27, 2008 2:38 PM

I'm sure that almost anything you do while driving increases the risk of an accident to some extent. In my case it would be listening to Wagner. Especially if I try to sing along. Them German words is long, some of em! I guess I don't think any of this should be illegal. Talking, eating, receiving oral sex, the whole dam shebang. But if you cause damage negligently then, ex post, we should throw the book at you.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on June 27, 2008 3:15 PM

This post reminds me of talking with my crotchety grandpa. It's also premised on a logical fallacy -- x and y have similar characteristics and we don't ban y so banning x is wrong. Well, no. Because banning y (conversation) is impossible, that doesn't mean banning x (cellphone use while driving) is unjustified.

It also suffers from the 'cult of data' -- that is, data is not the only means to validate activity. How about watching movies while driving? Is that OK? Wearing a blindfold? Lying down? Do you actually need data to prove that these activities are unsafe? Or can it be deduced in some other way? You know, there's not a shred of data that says personal ownership of nuclear weapons has caused a single fatlity, so why restrict my freedom to own an ICBM?

Posted by: shpackle on June 27, 2008 6:01 PM

I remember discussing this with someone a few years ago, that is, is there a difference between talking on the phone and to a person in the car. I thought I read there were studies that it is more dangerous. I wonder if the brain is processing things differently when you are conducting a conversation over the phone than face to face. Could the brain have to do more work to visualize things when it's a phone call? I don't know, just tossing it out there. I don't think it's impossible this is so.

Posted by: Patrick on June 27, 2008 7:00 PM

I believe talking on a hands free cell phone is more dangerous than talking to passengers in the car, and the reason that I believe it to be the case was (independently) cited in one study about hands free cell phones that I heard / read. Off the top of my head, here's how I would explain it.

When a driver is talking to passengers in his car, the passengers all know the "circumstances" /conditions that the driver is driving under. They can see when traffic is merging etc. And that makes it easier for a driver to carry on a more relaxed, off- again, on-again conversation with his passengers than with someone on the other end of a cell phone (who doesn't know what is happening on the driver's side of the cell phone).

Plus -- and this is a personal opinion that I don't believe was cited in the study -- these days I think it's very difficult to talk to people on the phone, in general, no matter what you yourself are doing:

They are very likely talking on a cell phone and it's hard for them to hear you;

They are multi-tasking and not giving you adequate feedback; .

They are talking from a hands free cell phone or a speaker phone making it very difficult to figure out what in the world they are saying; etc.

- - - - - -

That being said, of course for some drivers its probably just as dangerous for them to talk to car passengers as to people on a hands free cell phone.

A) "Funny" example one. At one time I worked for a travel company that where I would escort people to the airport in a mini-van. One of the van drivers we used was very friendly -- too friendly. While we would be speeding along the Grand Central Parkway on our way to LaGuardia Airport he would frequently turn around in his seat to talk to people in the van!!!! So in his case, maybe it would be safer for him to be gabbing on a hands free cell phone, as he would then be more inclined to keep his eyes on the road when he's driving 40+ miles an hour on a busy limited access roadway.

B) "Funny" example two. When I went to visit my aunt and uncle in San Bernardino, they just had to show me the amazing Alpine resort communities that occupy the tops of the San Bernardino (?) mountains. (And they are amazing!) The narrow, four (?) lane blacktop roadway (with no barrier separating ongoing traffic) twists and turns up the side of these high mountains. There are no barriers or guardrails between the roadway and the valley thousands of feet below -- plus there are all these signs warning about falling rocks.

My late uncle Danny, bless his sole, was another one of those drivers who love of gab made it difficult for him to keep his eyes on the road. I was petrified all the way up. Plus, every once in a while he would play "tourguide" and try to point out some miniscule structure on a mountainside a few miles away! (I kept on saying, "Yes, I see it! Yes, I see it!" even when I didn't, to get him to put his eyes back on the road.)

So I think he is another driver who would probably be safer gabbing on a hands free cell phone.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on June 27, 2008 7:43 PM

I think the evidence that cellphone use is distracting is dubious at best. I'm only saying this to be fair, because I detest seeing people talking on cell phones at the supermarket, on the street, in the gym, at the movies, and even in the religious institution of your choice. I think they look crazier when they are talking into a hands-free device, but that's just me. Still, it is their right to be and act crazy, and none of my business.

Posted by: miriam on June 27, 2008 10:12 PM

I agree w/ Benjamin.

Let me offer two datapoints. I find it true in my own experience. When I'm on a phone, I'm spending a lot more of my brain trying to figure out what the other person is saying. Part of that is just the connection and/or sound quality. It's just harder to hear, and so you spend more effort in listening. Part of it is lack of context. I think that there's also often a difference in the sorts of conversations people have on cellphones as versus in person. On the phone people are more likely to be trying to talk about something complex, like directions, as versus talking about mindless topics like sports or the weather.

Point 2: I find that almost without exception, these days, when I see another car do something really boneheaded, that driver is on a cellphone. Now, obviously there's a sampling bias in that most people drive alone. But it's still rather impressive. At the very least it does show that using a cellphone is very distracting.

Posted by: Leonard on June 27, 2008 11:23 PM

Dear Playmates,

I have blogged about this topic here.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on June 28, 2008 11:51 AM

The fact is, the part of your brain that's used to interpret sound is the same part that's used to interpret sight. There's a reason you turn down the radio in your car when you're trying to find a street or house at night. Instinctively you know you can't "see" well enough if the radio is too loud. This same principle applies when talking on the phone, even a hands-free set.

Talking to others in the car has a similar effect. But, as Benjamin points out, the other people in the car add to the visual receptors in the vehicle and increase the chance of their catching something you might miss due to your limited visual capability. A burden shared is a burden lessened, after all.

Also have to agree with shpackle, the straw man arguments have been coming fast and furious lately. You can dismiss science with failed logic all you want, but that don't make it true.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on June 30, 2008 10:31 AM

I could not find this link when the thread here was new, but it popped up again so I'm going to send it along. The issue with cell phone use in autos pertains to where our attention is directed and what effect that has on our perceptions. While I find, for example, no smoking laws for private businesses like restaurants examples of using laws when the market could and should be allowed to work, I favor no cell phones while driving ... even if I'm a sometimes scofflaw. As an asthmatic non-smoker I could take my business to restaurants that banned smoking or had separate dining areas with good ventilation. Drivers on cell phones put others at risk due to willfully altering their ability to pay proper attention to the task at hand.

Here's that link to a very interesting (and entertaining) study in perception/attention.

Posted by: Chris White on July 2, 2008 6:54 PM

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