Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I - Cell Phones or Booze... Tough Call

NTSB Proposes Cell Phone Ban

I have not generally been a fan of a total ban on cell phone use while driving, but the more I watch how people seem to be infected with a total stupidity virus when behind the wheel the more I consider it. The real problem is that it is a type of behavior that is very hard to catch people at so is very difficult to get any real traction in enforcing. Without strong enforcement there is really little chance of changing behavior. Here in Oregon they outlawed talking on hand-held phones and for a few months people pretty much stopped, or at least got a lot more cautious about it. Now my observations show that probably around 10% of the drivers around here are on their phones, which is about what it was before the ban.

What really gets me about this issue is the regular citing of a study that showed that people were more dangerous driving while talking on their phones than they were driving drunk. That study has been bantered around all over the place, but no one ever seems to really think through the evidence. All the test really showed is that someone fully engaged in talking on their phone is less aware of their surroundings than is someone who is drunk and fully engaged in their driving. The problem is that virtually no one who is driving drunk is really as engaged as they are for the study. In the study they knew that they were drunk and knew that they were being observed. Those on the phone were also being told to stay on the phone and talk. The real-world situations are going to be a bit different, as most people who are on their phones are going to respond to traffic issues by stopping or interrupting their conversations. They aren't going to do as well as they might if they weren't on the phone, but they won't do as badly as they did in the test. Likewise, one of the major dangers of drunk drivers is that they are not aware that they are impaired, so they don't try to concentrate on their driving. Instead they are busy talking, messing with the radio, racing other cars, using poor judgement and taking excessive risks - all factors that the test effectively removed from their behavior. So let's just throw out that whole "cell phones are more dangerous than booze" thing and consider the real issue.

Fundamentally, the problem is not cell phones, it is concentration and distraction. Distraction is actually a pretty nebulous area since what constitutes being dangerously distracted at one time, say on a busy freeway at rush hour, may be quite different in another time and place, like a quiet rural road with no other traffic. There are a lot of ways people distract themselves while they drive. I've seen people using their laptops, programming their GPS, fixing their makeup, eating lunch and even reading the newspaper while driving. Actually I've seen all of that in one day. The problem is obviously not the device, but the operator.

Now banning the device may prove to be an effective interim solution, although history would tend to indicate that it won't be, but the ultimate solution is one of education and training. After seat belts started to come into use it took at least a full generation before they were widely accepted and used. I still know people who will hook the belt over their shoulder to fool the cops but won't buckle up because they are afraid of getting trapped in a burning car or feel that they are safer getting thrown out. But younger people seem to just automatically buckle up when they get in a car, especially when they are in the front seats. The difference is education changing cultural understanding and expectation. There will probably be more results from a long-term media campaign than from any legislation. Only when people decide to change will the law be effective.

Texting while driving is a different animal, however. I can think of no circumstance where I would consider it to be even remotely acceptable. The problem again comes down to social training. We have become trained to answer the phone when it rings and to respond to a text ASAP. That training puts us in danger when we are driving because even when we know the risks it is hard to resist the urge of social pressure. This is where our instant society has conditioned us to expect instant gratification, so we can't stand having it delayed. Imagine a room full of young people - say, 16-30 years old - who all have cell phones and who are all receiving a variety of calls and texts during a 1 hour period but are not allowed to answer any of them. They know they are coming in and they know that none of them are critical, and they know that at the end of the hour they will be able to answer them, but they can't do it when they ring. That crowd will go nuts. They have been trained since the days of Alexander Graham Bell to answer the ring as soon as it comes in. What we have to find a way to do is to re-train ourselves as a society to be able to delay that gratification when we know that satisfying it is a higher risk than it is worth.

I don't know how to do that, but that's also not my job. My job is just to point out where society is getting weird.

And more on it from Time.

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