Friday, July 25, 2008

Hang Up and Drive

I followed a Land Rover down the Palmetto Expressway the other afternoon. It was going 55 mph in the left lane, its right turn signal on for miles yet giving no indication that it intended to actually move out of the lane, and when it finally dumped off the freeway onto the city street, it crossed several lanes of traffic to the left, the turn signal still steadily blinking for a right turn. I was able to get past it and see the driver and — you guessed it — he had a cellphone stuck in his ear.

Perfect timing for this article from

For years, psychologists who study driving and attention have argued that switching to “hands free” is not a real solution to the hazards caused by yacking on the mobile in the car. “The impairments aren’t because your hands aren’t on the wheel. It’s because your mind isn’t the road,” says David Strayer, professor of psychology at the University of Utah, whose research has found driving while talking on a cellphone to be as dangerous as driving drunk.

Now neuroscience is showing your mind literally isn’t on the road. The overtaxed driver’s poor brain doesn’t distinguish between a conversation that takes place on an iPhone or a Bluetooth headset. In both cases, the chatting driver is distracted, putting herself, her passengers, other drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians at risk.

Say there’s an 18-wheeler to your right, an RV to your left, and suddenly a call comes in from that motormouth client in Kansas City. As the client’s voice starts buzzing in your ear, the activity in the parts of your brain keeping your car in your lane declines.

“Forty percent of your attention is drawn away when you’re on the phone,” says Marcel Just, a psychologist who directs Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging. That goes for you too, Mr. Multitasker.

Before you ask; yes, I have driven and talked on my cellphone at the same time. But I haven’t done it since my involuntary involvement in that physics experiment back in March. I don’t initiate the call unless it’s an emergency, and that’s happened only once when I saw a car catch fire on I-25 in Albuquerque. But here in Miami, if you see a car weaving all over the road like a skateboarder on crack, chances are the driver is nattering away on their phone. The county tried to pass a hands-on ban like California, but it was overruled by the state legislature — probably after getting frantic calls from constituents… driving on the Palmetto in their SUV.

But as the article points out, even hands-free cellphone driving is dangerous, and I wonder what they envision the solution for that would be. Frankly, I’ve been driving long enough — forty years this September — to know that there were idiot drivers out there long before cellphones came along, and no amount of legislation, technology, or driver’s education will get rid of the old man in the twenty-year old Corolla trundling down the fast lane of I-95 at 45 mph with his turn signal on and a seat belt dangling out the passenger door, the buckle making sparks.