“Oi” — the real problem with phones and driving

Auckland Transport has just kicked off a new driving safety campaign, aimed at reducing the numbers of people using their handheld phones while driving. It is aimed at getting people to shame phone-using drivers (by getting their attention and expressing mild displeasure with a Kiwi-specific pejorative term). I guess their thinking is that people don’t take the risk of using phones while driving seriously enough, so engaging likeminded members of the public can get people’s attention on the problem.

The campaign is somewhat light-hearted; Auckland Transport probably don’t expect us to be knocking of each other’s car windows. But it is not without precedent, as shown by the recent spate of Kiwi drivers confiscating keys off foreign tourists who are accused of driving erratically. I’m not sure it is a great idea to have us all police the roads collectively, given the way in which road rage incidents can escalate. But leaving that aside, let’s ask three questions about the current campaign.

1. Are people sufficiently aware of the dangers of mobile phone use while driving?

I suspect most people who use their phones in the car do so because they think it is relatively safe to do so. Texting is probably something that we realise is a bit of a problem since you need to take your eyes off the road, but if you intend to just glance down at the phone for an instant, then maybe it will be OK. I also think most people don’t see much wrong with using a phone to talk; after all, you talk to other passengers and no one is planning to ban that (as far as I know!).

 Unfortunately, the facts are not with us. Just talking on your mobile phone is a significant risk to driving. Research suggests that you are four times more likely than normal to have a crash when you are talking on a phone. To put that in perspective, your risk of having a crash after drinking alcohol is elevated by about four times at a blood-alcohol level at .08 – which was our OLD limit. Given our new limit of .05, you are literally more at risk from using your phone in the car than you are from alcohol if you just sneak across the limit.

 Texting is worse – considerably worse. Your crash risk jumps to eight times normal if you are texting, which is obviously much higher than the drink-driving threshold.

These numbers generally surprise people, but the the problem with using mobile phones is not really an eye issue (that is, it is not about failing to look at the road); it is much more a brain issue. When you’re talking on the phone, or texting, your brain is involved in communication. You’re thinking about your message, and whether the other person understands you, and what they are saying to you, and all these things are very taxing on your brainpower. So when a car suddenly pulls out in front us, or a child chases a ball across the road, even if we are looking at the right place our brains may take an extra few milliseconds to process what is going on and what action needs to be taken. So it is the interference with what your brain needs to do that increases your crash risk.

2. What is so dangerous about holding the phone? Why is the use of a hands-free kit allowed?

Alas, on this one the science is at odd with the policy. Because the truth is that there is no evidence that hands-free use of a phone is any safer than holding the phone. As I mentioned, the problem with driving is the attentional distraction, not the coordination difficulty of holding a phone and using a steering wheel. So, if I was in charge of driving laws, I’d be outlawing any use of a phone by the driver of a vehicle. Maybe that’s why I’m not a politician! But I am definitely in favour of any law that reduces crash risk, so if we start with hand-held phones then that is OK by me.

3. But what about talking to passengers or listening to the radio – are they any safer? Should we legislate silence?

Good news here. Talking to someone else in the car is much safer than talking to someone on the phone, and is probably safer than driving alone. That’s because the passenger adjusts their conversation with driving conditions – when you’re merging in busy traffic they’ll naturally be quiet. The person down the other end of the phone doesn’t give you that leeway. The passenger in the car may even warn you of something that you haven’t seen! And listening to the radio is not distracting because you’re not communicating with it, so you feel free to ignore it. You notice this when you get in a busy patch on the road and then realise that you missed a couple of minutes of Guyon Espiner’s interview.

So, you can decide whether to say “Oi” to other people using their phones in the car. But think really hard about whether you should be using the phone, and understand that if you don’t drink and drive, you shouldn’t be calling/texting and driving either.

For more information, check out the website of Prof David Strayer at the University of Utah. Prof Strayer runs the Applied Cognition Lab where he tests people in driving simulators and measures the effects of distraction on their driving performance. He was even on Oprah!
http://www.psych.utah.edu/lab/appliedcognition/

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