by Bill Snyder

It’s Time to Turn Off Your Cell Phone When Driving

Dec 15, 20113 mins
MobileSmall and Medium BusinessSmartphones

Distracted drivers using cell phones kill thousands of people every year. And using a headset doesn't make much difference. So let's all heed the NTSB's recent recommendation and lay down the phones while at the wheel.

Look this is America; we’re all individualists and don’t want the government messing with us. Fair enough. But can we also agree that getting broadsided by a cell-phone-yakking driver isn’t exactly what we’d like to happen on a Saturday morning when we’re taking the kids to the mall?

Using cell phones to talk or to text while driving is something that qualifies people who get killed doing it for a Darwin award. And if they didn’t take anyone with them, so what? But it doesn’t usually work out that way. When you’re driving a 3000-pound-vehicle with only part of your brain in gear and hit someone on the street or in another car, chances are they’ll get mighty messed up.

Indeed, in 2008 the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, found that nearly 6,000 people died in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver, and more than half a million were injured. Sure, some of those bozos were reading the newspaper or shaving or making out, but most were probably talking or texting on their phones.

This is hardly a new issue. It arose again this week when the NTSB, the agency that investigates fatal accidents involving planes, trains and cars, urged states to ban drivers from using hands-free devices, including wireless headsets.

The agency has exactly zero power to enforce its recommendations; that kind of thing is left to the states, nine of which have banned the use of hand-held phones, while 35 have banned texting by drivers. In California, a driver was ticketed for texting while stopped at a red light — and it stood up in court. But no state has banned the use of driving while using a headset or other hands-free device. But they should.

That’s because the real problem isn’t your hands; it’s your brain. Very few of us have the mental capacity to do two fairly difficult things at the same time; driving being one, holding an intelligent conversation being the other, says David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah who has studied the use of cell phones or other gadgets in automobiles.

“You can be looking out the windshield and think you’re paying attention – but you’re not,” he told me last year.

Other scientists have reached similar conclusions. 

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University used brain imaging to show that even just listening to a cell phone while driving cuts by more than a third of your attention to driving. Subjects inside an MRI brain scanner were tested on a driving simulator and were found to weave, as if they were under the influence of alcohol. The study showed lessened activity in the brain’s parietal lobe, which is called upon for spatial sense and navigation, and also the occipital lobe, which handles visual information.

That study raises some interesting questions. What about GPS? On the one hand, it’s probably safer to listen to spoken directions from an electronic device than to try and read a paper map or even written directions while you drive. On the other hand, maybe it is taking too many brain cells out of the equation. What about listening to the radio or talking to the person next to you, or yelling at your kids in the back seat? Maybe there’s nothing we can do about those.

But when it comes to phones and other gadgets there’s really only one sane conclusion. If you want to kill yourself, go right ahead. But don’t take me or anyone else with you. Put down the damn phone.