Pay Close Attention to the Following Message About Distraction

In the last couple of weeks, the issue of cellphone use and texting while driving has finally been shoved into the national consciousness, thanks to an excellent series of articles by Matt Richtel in The New York Times. Even the United States Senate has been moved to sit up and take notice. Of course our attention will soon drift elsewhere, the way it does — that’s sort of the problem, isn’t it? — until some fresh incident brings it briefly to mind again.

Tom Vanderbilt had an excellent post yesterday on How We Drive about some of the practical problems and solutions raised by the Times series and related research. It’s well worth reading in full, but here’s a taste:

2380712416_a74318fe63_m.jpgPhoto by Paul Keller via Flickr.

It has been heartening to see the hard science of distracted driving
getting such prominent attention, the latest of course being the New York Times coverage of the naturalistic truck study (and keep in mind that truck drivers are statistically safer than civilian drivers) by VTTI (which I look forward to reading in its entirety), followed by today’s announcement of proposed legislation for a texting-while-driving ban
pegged to state highway funding. My only qualm with all the texting coverage is that it might push to the side the very real issue of cell-phone conversation while driving, which the cell-phone lobby and others would have us believe is not an issue — they of course don’t want to give up those minutes, those same minutes that preciously tick away as you sit listening to the horrible and lengthy prompts to leave messages.

But the idea of a legislative ban always brings up the issue of the difficulties of enforcement, and along those lines I have been wondering what alternatives (or supplementary tools) there might be to a legislative solution to the problem of wireless communication while driving.…

So what can be done? The obvious method would be simply not to do it, but this falls apart under various psychological mechanisms, like overconfidence and optimistic bias, the sort that are revealed in polls in which a majority of drivers say things like texting should be banned and yet in which a majority of drivers admit to having done it. Abstinence in phoning while driving, like “abstinence-only” sex education as a measure for combating teen pregnancy, is more effective in principle than reality.

A commenter in the earlier post on cell phone distraction makes an interesting point in this regard, however. As he notes, we can choose not to ourselves become enablers: “Consider that the cell phone conversation requires two people, at a minimum. I’ve taken a personal vow to not speak with a driver using a cell phone. When I speak to someone, I ask if they are driving and if the answer is yes, I ask them to call me back when they are parked, and I hang up. If someone places a call to me, I ask the same questions. I may not be able to influence lobbyists, and be part of the solution, but I certainly will not be part of the problem!”

This is an interesting point that I doubt few of us pay attention to: How is the conversation we have (as a non-driver) via phone with a driver potentially contributing to the reduced safety of that person, not to mention others around him?

So what about you? Are you willing to refuse to talk on the phone to people who are driving? It’s a start, anyhow.

More from around the network: Smart City Memphis on the prospects for decent mass transit in that city; the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia reports on efforts to overturn a school biking ban and implement a bike-sharing plan in Collingswood, NJ; and Transportation for America launches the Take Your Legislator to Work Challenge.

  • Lucy

    This is also an excellent method to avoid hearing a crash happen to the person who is talking while driving.

  • I wonder if it’s possible to employ cell phone jamming on major highways without affecting service to nearby homes and businesses.

  • Mark, so if you jam cell phones on major highways, how do you call for a tow truck to fix your stationary vehicle? What about people who are taking the bus because they have a long phone interview they have to complete?

  • downstate

    Jamming would be overkill. Nothing wrong with car passengers using cell phones.

  • Convenience is very important. I guess that’s worth a whole bunch of people dying.

  • What about people who are taking the bus because they have a long phone interview they have to complete?

    What about them? They’re probably disturbing someone else sitting near them who just wants to read the paper or take a nap without having to worry about some asshole who doesn’t have the consideration to arrange their interview someplace that’s actually private.

  • Why not just jam all cell phone networks, everywhere? We can just go back to pagers and pay phones.

    @CT: I don’t see how your “disturbing someone else” rationale is at all related to the idea of reducing mobile communications usage by motor vehicle operators.

    @MW: I think being able to call for help when stuck on a highway is one of the more useful reasons to carry a cell phone, especially for women traveling at night. Would you prefer that Mom or Sis waits for a “friendly motorist” to come by and offer his assistance?

  • The real answer is to increase the risk of serious penalties for any injury that the motorist causes. If you jam the cell phones, they will just start watching personal DVD players shile driving, or doing something else stupid. If you can’t micro-regulate the causes of the dangerous behavior without huge downsides (no mobile communications), then regulate the results. The motorist that strikes a pedestrian or bicyclist should be presumed liable for damages (like in most European jurisdictions), and shoudl be deemed criminally negligent as a matter of law.

    And speaking of criminally negligent driving, here’s one for the weekly carnage.

  • I have always done what the commenter on “How We Drive” suggests–if I know someone I’m speaking with is driving, I ask them to call me back when they’re not driving and I immediately hang up.

    I probably don’t know the best way to do this, but maybe someone else can run with it in a more web-savvy way: I think I’ll post a “pledge” somewhere–probably facebook, etc.–asking people to “take the pledge” “I promise to politely but immediately end any phone call as soon as I learn that the other party is driving.”

    Just scribbling it here, but something like that. I hope others do the same, or that someone comes up with a nicer looking, more distributable one.

  • I propose two different taxi rates:

    Last night, I needed to take a taxi to Brooklyn. The driver assured me he was an experienced professional driver as I questioned him about the route he was taking, yet we inched along as he continued his conversation on his mobile phone (granted, not hand-held). I thought, perhaps if he discontinued his call, he could focus more on the driving with both hands, especially so after I offered a generous tip. One hand was on the wheel, while his other hand was making gestures to punctuate the points he was making in his call (via headset).

    I scanned the taxi and noticed he hadn’t placed his hack license inside the relatively new Nissan’s license slot behind the plexi. Not so professional. I asked him politely to discontinue the call…he didn’t. In fact, he was still on the call when we arrived in Greenpoint. And I started to wonder, can I really ask my taxi driver not to use a hands-free phone while I’m paying for the ride? Maybe I can’t.

    BUT…the market can.

    What if….what if we had two taxi rates: one, where for a surcharge, once the taxi is hired by a passenger, the driver only drives — without making or taking a cell call. Let’s just call this the cell-free surcharge. Maybe it’s $1.00. Maybe it’s $2.50. Can be worked out later. The taxi could have a cell phone icon with a slash through it on either door indicating participation.

    The other rate is what we have now. The taxi driver on the call throughout your trip.

    If you consider these quotes from the NHTSA study:

    “Driver distraction contributes to about 25 percent of all police-reported traffic crashes. While the precise impact cannot be quantified, we nevertheless have concluded that the use of cell phones while driving has contributed to an increasing number of crashes, injuries and fatalities.”
    “Hands-free or hand-held, we have found that the cognitive distraction is significant enough to degrade a driver’s performance.”

    …I would say, periodically, passengers submit the taxi receipts showing the cell-free surcharge to a fund that would be used to refund passengers for choosing and creating a need for safer drivers. A variety of funding sources could be found. Presumably, there would be fewer crashes and lives lost? Thereby saving our communities a lot. Safer drivers would receive higher tips due to higher overall fares.

    Let people claim it on their taxes if they itemize?

    Is this possible?


  • Nice idea, Peter, but the passenger isn’t the only one who suffers when cabbies talk on the phone. I don’t want to be dead because someone was too cheap to pay for a cabbie who would drive safely.

  • Ian Turner


    It’s already illegal for taxicab drivers to talk on the phone while working, the law is just unenforced.

  • ….and behold, today’s NYT’s above the fold story: “Cabbies stay on their phones despite ban and proven risks.” Photo caption below image of a driver on a hand-held! phone…”New York cabdrivers may not use cellphones even with hands-free devices, but few are ticketed.”




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