ET don't phone home (if you are driving)

[This is from two years ago. Since I just got through driving 1000 miles to reach a beach with no internet access -- imagine that -- I thought it was appropriate. Or not. Just don't read it while you are driving. Please.]

In the 1930s my uncle got a car that had a radio in it. The family was aghast at the foolhardiness of this recipe for disaster. Now the same arguments are being played out with mobile phones. But is it the same? I think not.

Research to be published soon in Applied Cognitive Psychology shows what a number of other studies have shown: talking on a car phone while driving is risky. On hundred students were asked to answer simple questions about the layout of buildings or verify statements about relative positions of buildings on campus while using a driving simulator.

Participants were poorer at maintaining a stable speed, or keeping a constant distance between themselves and other traffic than when only driving. Paradoxically, there was some indication that when drivers had to speak while driving, their lane control increased even though speed control decreased. (via

Either speaking or listening interfered with driving. Other research, using devices that track eye-movements, has shown that the usual "darting" gaze of an active driver reverted to a fixed straight ahead gaze when using a car phone. Coupled with actual epidemiologic data that "hands-free" devices do not mitigate the added risk of accidents from car phones (post), this research adds to the evidence that it is the cognitive aspects of talking on a phone rather than the physical act of holding it with one hand that is the problem.

Why this would be more of a problem for car phones than for talking with a passenger or listening to the radio is unclear. One could interpret this research as saying that these more usual activities are as dangerous as talking on a phone, but that isn't my experience and I doubt it is true. Clearly there is both more room for research here and also enough research to indicate that talking on a car phone while driving several tons of steel at more than 60 miles per hour (88 feet per second) isn't a very good idea. If the danger were only to the driver it would be one thing. But it is also to the passenger and everyone else that shares a road with them.

Because I had once expressed caution about health effects of electromagnetic fields, for a while I was frequently called upon for help by communities concerned about cell phone towers (transmitters) being sited in their midst. Often the sites were in really stupid places, like atop schools or daycare centers. But my concern was not so much about exposure from these tower transmitters (which was usually very low) as from the transmitter that people held in their hands, with an antenna plastered to their skulls. It was known that radiofrequency hot spots near the antenna existed within the cranium, although, since this was non-ionizing radiation whether this was harmful was debatable. My point here, though, is that the siting of the cell towers, while not exposing people directly, was creating a situation where mobile phone technology was becoming pervasive and now has almost become a necessity for many people.

The vastly increased exposure of the population from handheld transmitters and now the problem of cognitive deficit of drivers careening down the highway are two consequences of the cell phone towers not related to the original concerns of residents, but possibly significantly more important.

Live and don't learn, I guess.


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Don't ask me why I am so fixated on this topic but whenever I see an article about driving and cell phone use I post on it (example here). The idea that talking on the phone, dialing or texting while driving might be a wee bit of a cognitive problem doesn't seem too controversial, but many people…

I remember when the FCC bought into the hysteria about RF exposure.

You had to know the fall off rates for the EM radiation, etc. Matter of fact it's all codified in Part 97 of the FCC Rules and Regs.

Of course this doesn't mean a damned thing to most hams. I've managed an RF burn or two in my life.

Just this week there was a deadly accident in Az.
A teen was apparently texting while driving. Hit headon another driver. They were both killed.
This stretch of raod is well traveled, but rural.
Gotta teach everyone to turn those dratted phones off when driving.

This is an interesting area of investigation, and something I've thought quite a bit about. I have a theory as to why this would be more of a problem for car phones than for talking with a passenger. Going just by how it "feels" to me, it seems to have something to do with the lack of a shared field of vision one experiences when talking to a passenger. Talking on the phone seems to involve a sort of virtual space, a halfway point where the participants "meet". If that's what it is, then wherever it is, whenever you're there, you ain't where you were, and if where you were happens to have been behind the wheel of a car... that's a problem.

Talking on the phone seems to involve a sort of virtual space, a halfway point where the participants "meet". If that's what it is, then wherever it is, whenever you're there, you ain't where you were, and if where you were happens to have been behind the wheel of a car... that's a problem.

Well said Racter, really!
Whenever there's a driver behind me on their cell phone I've noticed they usually don't change lanes, no matter how close they are to you they'll just keep on following you. In an effort to not let another driver kill me with their lack of awareness I've started moving over a lane to get out of their way. Every time I've done this they pass seconds later.
We gave up our cell phone years ago, just makes life easier really.
The simplicity of life is being drowned out by technology.

A recent serious crash here was provoked by a woman talking on a cell. She explained that her husband told her he was leaving her. Ka-Boom. Radio is passive, talking on a phone is active and involves a completely different mental landscape including emotion. It is not just the matter of using speech production areas of the brain. Talking with passengers can be dangerous as well. Drunk driving teen accidents are possibly due not uniquely to alcohol impaired reflexes or judgment but to the mad and highly involving talk and behavior that goes on in the car...In much of Europe using a cell while driving is forbidden.

partial list EU car phone law / penalties, in French:

crash: Except that the data don't show that "hands free" devices help.

I'm lucky enough to live in an area where I can be a pedestrian most of the time to get my errands done. I can't count the number of times I've nearly been run down while in a crosswalk and walking with the light by drivers who were a whole lot more interested in their conversations than noticing the sign that says "Right turn on red only when pedestrians are not present." I've bounced off the hood of more than one Volvo who never even noticed that they just had an "incident." I believe this is called "hit and run." Me, I just went home and put an ice bag on the bruise for a couple of days. Getting the cops involved would have been a lot more trouble.

To me, unless cell phones are being used for emergency calls, they are just one more way to be endlessly self-involved and narcissistic. I have one for emergencies (single woman traveling alone and all that) and business when it saves me money. It doesn't get in the car with me.

Those cell phone users at the grocery who are saying (in an over loud voice) "Yeah, I'm at the Giant," are just broadcasting how self important they are. I want to use sharp elbows on them, narcissistic bastards. If you'd bothered to make a shopping list, you wouldn't have to call someone to ask how many bunches of parsley you need to buy. It's just the 21st C. way of being a lazy ass. If you can afford to use a cell for this sort of bullshit, you have too much money and not much sense. Where I live, there are a whole bunch of them. I think they are called Republicans.

3 points on your driving license (get 12 and you lose it) and a fine if you're caught phoning and driving in the UK. Doesn't seem to stop people, though.

Damn Melanie, how do you really feel about cell phones? For the record, I use mine quite a lot, even for mundane sorts of crap. Because I have to use it for business quite a bit, I have a flat rate, unlimited calling plan. Having severe ADHD, as likely as not, I forgot to take the list with me and end up calling home to see what we need, occasionally to find out what store I was heading to. I do my absolute best to avoid talking on it in front of others, leaving the store or whatever people I happen to be around, if at all possible. The only time I am on the phone in front of others, is if I am in a rush at the store, or happen to be on public transportation. I am quite self conscious about being on the phone, I even go to a private space when I use it at home.

That said, I have my own pet peeves about people on cell phones. Being absent minded, I am in love with the gps feature that allows me to set it to shut down automatically in hospitals, doctors offices, places where I'm likely to be in important meetings, movie theaters and at church. I don;t have to think about it and it never disrupts whatever is happening. I really wish that more people were considerate about that sort of thing. It irritates me to no end, when I hear phones going off where it is simply inappropriate.

As for talking while driving, I am all about pulling over if I need to use it. If it's not convenient to do so, I wait until it is. I just avoid driving, if I'm expecting any important calls. Of course, I don't drive any more, so now I am more irritated by people phoning while driving, having been hit more than once by such morons.

I know I have a problem with the cell. I use it all the time, over 1200 minutes a month. People are always trying to reach me, no matter where I am. It's rare to see me without an ear piece. I view every drive is an opportunity to catch up, especially when some days I could be wasting nearly an hour on my commute.

However, I am also aware of the dangers of driving and chatting. I have been distracting myself lately by counting drivers on cell phones. It is usually around 15% in my area.

I am also a pretty fast driver, which means I am frequently passing others. On occasion, I will come behind someone who was moving at a fair clip and appears to have slowed down. Inevitably they are doing one of two things: a) talking on the cell or b) engaged in an animated conversation with their passenger.

All this rings true. I am crap at multi-tasking and if I am talking to my kids in the car and need to change lanes - or make any kind of decision I am aware of a hiatus which they accept as normal. If I am on the phone - particularly with a business customer I do not feel it is OK to just go quiet for a bit, or not pay attention, so I will normally pull over and call them back. This is nothing to do with hands free it is all to do with focus.

Mel-The guy with the Volvo was Revere, on a cell phone.

Nope, not illegal in the state to do it here. Its all about congested areas zipping down the interstate and using a cellphone is a caution thing. Do it in the city of Memphis and its a one way trip to the Med. Those people are crazy and will as Mel said run a pedestrian down without a cell phone, think what they do with one.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 19 Aug 2007 #permalink