Cellphone chatter more distracting than passenger talk

Q: We have lately read how driving while texting is as dangerous, if not more so, than driving with a blood-alcohol level of .10. We have also heard that when driving with a phone in one's hand, or even while talking on a hands-free device, our concentration suffers and accidents increase. I do not take issue with those statistics. What I wonder, though, is whether safety studies have been done on the effects of distractions such as listening to the radio or having a conversation with a passenger. Has anyone studied accident rates stemming from listening to a radio talk show or having an animated discussion with a passenger, and compared them with those from cellphone use? If so, and if cellphone use is more dangerous, why might this be the case? Is the concentration process different? Does the use of a device require more concentration to listen and speak than listening and speaking to someone right next to you?

— Bill Exaros, Hanover Township, Northampton County


A: Some researchers believe our brains need to burn more gas to converse with someone outside of our sphere of senses than to talk to a person in our presence.

One of the best-informed people I've heard addressing distracted-driving issues is not a psychiatrist, sociologist, or scientist of any kind, but a former advertising executive who turned his full attention to distracted driving after suffering a personal tragedy related to the topic.

David Teater left a high-speed business career in 2009 to work for the nonprofit National Safety Council. He speaks publicly on distracted driving, has addressed Congress and appears in a series of short, very interesting NSC videos discussing this complex topic.

Citing numerous studies — some are listed on the NSC's Web site — Teater contends that communicating with someone in the abstract, versus a person in our presence, creates a "cognitive distraction," a kind of disconnect of the mind that is more dangerous when driving than listening to the radio or talking to a passenger in the car. Cognitive distraction trumps visual distraction (taking your eyes off the road) or mechanical distraction (taking your hands off the wheel), he says.

In part because this mental disconnect is dangerous in itself, hands-free cellphones are no safer than hand-held devices, according to Teater.

"There's no difference between hand-held and hands-free," he says, in a way that implies "hands-down."

When conversing with someone on the phone, you can't see how they're responding to what you're saying. Without visual cues such as facial expressions, a nod of the head, raised eyebrows, a certain "look" in the eye — basically how they're relating to your words — your brain has to make up lost ground.

"There's more of a cognitive load," Teater says, which creates a major problem if you're trying to undertake another demanding mental task.

The alleged human capacity for multitasking, much prized by the culture, is the stuff of pure myth, according to Teater.

"The human brain cannot do two cognitively demanding tasks at once," he says, but rather, it shifts between the two, focusing on one at a time. "At any given moment, the brain has to be focused on one of those [complex] tasks."

During a cellphone conversation in the car, the mind is forced to home in on the talk, drifting off the figurative road. And here's an important factor: It does so without realizing it. We're not aware of being cognitively disconnected.

"By definition, our mind is in another place, not in the current environment," Teater says.

This explanation strikes me as true. It seems like a kind of daydream mode: we think we're in control, but really, the mind is on auto-pilot as it relates to the act of driving. We're really "thinking" about the conversation.

So in this theory, not all distractions are created equal. Another important factor is found in the frequency at which drivers engage in different distractions, Teater says. For example, reaching for a moving object makes a driver nine times more likely to have an accident — more than twice as dangerous as cellphone talk — but it's a relatively rare occurrence. By comparison, talking on the phone makes a crash only four times more likely, but it's estimated that at any given moment, nearly one in 10 drivers is having a phone conversation. And cellphone use is a controllable behavior: Just say no.

Fellow warriors who are certain I've driven off the road on this issue, please let me know. But I think Teater tells a convincing tale. Check out his compelling videos, along with a truckload of related information at the NSC website. There's no condescension or preaching from the guy; he reminds us that cellphones evolved from car phones, and says he once used the phone while driving quite readily. That was before 2004, when his 12-year-old son was killed in a phone-related accident.

It's compelling and impressive when people react to tragedies such as that by working constructively for positive change. Doesn't get much more courageous, either. Another example, and one familiar to Lehigh Valley residents, is provided by Muhlenberg College graduate Jacy Good.

I think this guy is onto something, Bill. The National Transportation Safety Board recently urged states to ban the use of all electronic mobile devices while driving. The nonbinding recommendation is based in part on the agency's review of accident investigations.

"While the specific statistics and findings may differ among studies, the ultimate conclusion is the same: Talking or texting while driving, even on a hands-free device, distracts the driver … increasing the risk of an accident," the agency said in a news release.

There's still some opposing traffic on the road. My car, a 2012 model, has a built-in capacity for hands-free cellphone use, and the feature is blatantly promoted as a sales lure; a separate user's manual is devoted to the system and its multitude of wonky features. Some drivers refuse to take their hands from the wheel of the notion that hands-free phones, in particular, are safe enough, relative to other driving dangers.

At the finish line, Teater's race team will be the one getting the checkered flag.

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