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Author Topic: Milbank on cell phones and driving
Destineer
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Wow, apparently Dana Milbank is a blithering idiot who values his cell-phone-while-driving habit more than he values human lives. (I love the perfunctory dismissal of two peer-reviewed psych studies.)

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/cellphone-ban-would-be-a-distraction/2011/12/16/gIQAdv2GyO_story.html

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advice for robots
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While it was a bit tongue-in-cheek, I'd say that article still belongs at whitewhine.com. "You mean I have to spend an entire 20 minutes in my car with nothing but my thoughts?! Waaaaah!"

While I think the NTSB's recommendation is a little overboard and big-brotherish, I can't say I entirely disagree with something that weans people from their little prosthetic minds for at least a few minutes a day.

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Destineer
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I think it's much less big-brotherish than seat belt laws, actually. Phone use while driving endangers other motorists, not just oneself.
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advice for robots
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Some news story a few days ago was talking about how the NTSB was looking at technology that could shut off or block cell phones if it looked like they were inside moving cars. That's the big brother bit.
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twinky
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I'm ambivalent about handsfree. Conversing with a passenger is equally distracting.
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Here's that story. I guess the NTSB isn't proposing that--the technology was just brought up by the reporter as part of the story. My bad.

http://www.npr.org/2011/12/14/143727513/ntsb-recommends-cell-phone-ban-for-drivers

I don't have a big problem with handsfree, as long as it can be operated without much driver distraction. Having kids in the backseat is definitely more distracting than having a phone conversation with both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

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Destineer
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quote:
Originally posted by twinky:
I'm ambivalent about handsfree. Conversing with a passenger is equally distracting.

I think some of the studies have actually shown that this isn't true. The idea is that passengers are responsive to what's going on in the car, and can sometimes notice potential dangers. How many times have you had a passenger you were talking to say, "Dude, look out for that guy"?

I agree that kids are disruptive, but forcing people not to drive with their kids would be an unreasonable demand to place on them, compared with forcing them to drive without talking on the phone. (AFR underscored this point rather well, I thought.) It's all a question of costs (in terms of inconvenience to drivers) versus benefits (accidents averted per hour spent behind the wheel).

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twinky
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So can you talk handsfree on the phone if you have passengers? [Wink]
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rivka
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quote:
Originally posted by twinky:
I'm ambivalent about handsfree. Conversing with a passenger is equally distracting.

Studies have actually found that not to be true. Passengers can, for example, notice when you are paying attention to traffic and pause conversation momentarily.

[Edit: bah! beaten.]

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MattP
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Studies have also found that accident rates don't decrease when bans go into effect, possibly because people switch to hands-free and seriously now, how are you going effectively ban hands-free in a way that's enforceable?

I also recall reading a study (OK fine, a pop-press summary of a study) that showed an *increase* in accident rates following a texting ban. Turns out that when texting is illegal, people just hold their phones below the windows so they can't be seen texting and consequently are even less safe than when they could hold them at eye level without fear of being pulled over.

There's identifying hazards and then there's finding solutions to those hazards. A ban, common-sense as it may be, might not actually be an effective method of addressing the problem.

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Aros
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quote:
Originally posted by rivka:
quote:
Originally posted by twinky:
I'm ambivalent about handsfree. Conversing with a passenger is equally distracting.

Studies have actually found that not to be true. Passengers can, for example, notice when you are paying attention to traffic and pause conversation momentarily.

[Edit: bah! beaten.]

Who has a passenger during the rush hour commute? That's when we REALLY need the ban.
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The Rabbit
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quote:
Originally posted by twinky:
I'm ambivalent about handsfree. Conversing with a passenger is equally distracting.

This has been studied and you are incorrect.
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The Rabbit
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Most "handsfree" phones aren't really handfree. The require a hand when Dialing a call and answering a call which are, at least in my experience, more distracting than the conversation itself. Unless we are talking fully voice activated handfree phones, dialing a call and answering a call are as bad a texting while driving.
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Noemon
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quote:
Originally posted by Destineer:
I think it's much less big-brotherish than seat belt laws, actually. Phone use while driving endangers other motorists, not just oneself.

Not having a seat belt on can easily endanger other people on the road. It's much more difficult to maintain or regain control of a vehicle after being struck if you've been knocked from the driver's seat.
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rivka
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quote:
Originally posted by Aros:
Who has a passenger during the rush hour commute? That's when we REALLY need the ban.

Lots of people. Carpooling, taking kids home, etc.

quote:
Originally posted by The Rabbit:
Unless we are talking fully voice activated handfree phones, dialing a call and answering a call are as bad a texting while driving.

There I'll disagree. Most handfree devices require a single finger and a single button-push to answer or place a call. Much easier to time that well.
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SenojRetep
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Based on conversations with a CS Professor of mine (who did research on it while at MERL) the issue with cell phones is that it takes you out of the cognitive frame of being in the car in a way (as several people in this thread have already said) that is quite different than simply having a conversation with a passenger or listening to a radio. The problem isn't so much the removal of your eyes from the road or your hands from the wheel (although those are problems), it's the removal of your mind from the car.
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Mucus
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I suspect that long-term, this will really just mean in practice, a ban on having a phone in hand while driving. Ontario's ban basically exempts a cellphone mounted onto the dashboard being used as a GPS. With Google preparing a competitor to Apple's Siri, it probably won't be too long until people develop a convenient interface that can easily switch between dictation of texts, answering phone calls, as well as using the original GPS navigation function handsfree.
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iglee
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Hands free? Yeah, like the women who ran a red light and almost T-boned me in an intersection. She had her cell phone propped to her ear with her shoulder so she could have her hands free to handle the sheet of paper she was reading over her steering wheel. Maybe she was the secretary of the guy, just the week before, who almost ran into me. He was holding his cell phone to his ear with one hand while gesturing with his other hand. (I don't even want to think about what he was using to steer his van.) He obviously needs a hands-free devise because, as everyone knows, you can't carry on a decent conversation without gesturing with both hands.

I'm not making this up.

Wow, how did we ever get by back in the bad olí days when we had to wait till we got home or to the office to use the phone?!!

Maybe you have already seen this, but check it out anyway.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPW8xmI4w6U

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Dan_Frank
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quote:
Originally posted by The Rabbit:
quote:
Originally posted by twinky:
I'm ambivalent about handsfree. Conversing with a passenger is equally distracting.

This has been studied and you are incorrect.
Well, it has been studied and the popular theory is he's incorrect. Not every study confirms this, however. Some of the data calls it into question.
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MattP
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quote:
Unless we are talking fully voice activated handfree phones
The majority of smart phone, even without Siri, can dial by voice now. Even a decade ago my dumb phone had the ability to dial my "favorite" numbers by pressing and holding individual numbers (hold '1' for three seconds to dial home, for instance.)
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The Rabbit
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quote:
Originally posted by MattP:
quote:
Unless we are talking fully voice activated handfree phones
The majority of smart phone, even without Siri, can dial by voice now. Even a decade ago my dumb phone had the ability to dial my "favorite" numbers by pressing and holding individual numbers (hold '1' for three seconds to dial home, for instance.)
Even so, allowing handsfree phones presumes that the biggest problem with cell phone use while driving is taking one hand off the wheel. It isn't. One handed people can drive just fine. There are very few driving situations that can't be handled with only one hand on the wheel and normal operation of an automobile requires people to take one hand off the wheel frequently to do things like shift gears or adjust the windshield wipers.

The biggest problem with cell phone use while driving is taking your mind off the road not your hand off the wheel. The decision to make a phone call requires more mental effort than talking and listening once the call is made. When you answer a call, determining who is calling and why take more of your attention that just conversing.

Of course these aren't the only things that divert peoples attention from driving, but that isn't the question. Cell phone adds one more distraction on top of all the others. Unlike kids in the back seat or day dreaming behind the wheel, cell phone use while driving is something that can be regulated and something people can reasonably do without. We all did without it not that long ago. The question is whether or not using a cell phone when driving presents a significant increase in risk above and beyond all the other distraction drivers have to deal with.

Is there really any serious doubt about this? Is there anyone who hasn't observed lots of people driving erratically while talking on the phone?

I admit, I have used my cell phone while driving. I do it very rarely but I do occasionally do it. I tell myself that unlike other drivers, I can handle it or that it's an exceptional circumstance that justifies the risk. I'm not proud of that. I'm sure people rationalize driving drunk in exactly the same way.

I think the observation that laws that prohibit cell phone use while driving are ineffective makes a good point. But I think that means we need to back the laws up with changes in our social expectations and responsibility and not abandon the laws. Social pressure has done more to reduce drunk driving than laws.

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twinky
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A second set of eyes in the car reducing accident risk is not the same as a second set of eyes in the car reducing driver distraction when conversing.

My question with the wink was not a joke; it was intended to highlight this difference. If a conversation is a distraction, but a passenger reduces total risk, then is there actually a measurable difference between conversing with a passenger or conversing over a handsfree phone while a passenger is in the car?

The one functional difference is obviously that a passenger participating in a conversation with the driver can stop the conversation if risks become apparent. But does this actually translate into significant risk reduction? How does it compare to listening to talk radio? If a ban on handsfree phone use while driving were enforceable, could it be justified on these grounds?

The handsfree system in my car -- a new car, but it's an entry-level commuter sedan -- works as rivka describes. One button press to call or answer a call, then the rest is voice activated.

quote:
Originally posted by The Rabbit:
Even so, allowing handsfree phones presumes that the biggest problem with cell phone use while driving is taking one hand off the wheel.

Disagree. My impression is that the risk peak is when the driver is fiddling with the device. This is risky whether the driver is fiddling with a phone to call someone or with a portable music player to pick a song.

I think that's why the Ontario ban actually covers all handheld electronic devices, not just phones. If you have to fiddle with it to use it, you can't use it while driving unless it's either integrated into the vehicle or mounted on the dash/windshield.

So I wouldn't say that bans that exclude handsfree devices automatically presume that the riskiest behaviour is taking a hand off the wheel. I think the riskiest behaviour is dividing your concentration between the operation of two devices.

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The Rabbit
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quote:
The one functional difference is obviously that a passenger participating in a conversation with the driver can stop the conversation if risks become apparent. But does this actually translate into significant risk reduction?
This is not the only difference. I also don't think its the major difference. Talking on a phone simply requires more mental effort than talking in person. Trying to communicate on the phone in a foreign language or with someone who has a strong unfamiliar accent makes this really evident. I can't tell you why this is exactly, but I know its true for me and that I am not exceptional in this regard.

quote:
If a conversation is a distraction, but a passenger reduces total risk, then is there actually a measurable difference between conversing with a passenger or conversing over a handsfree phone while a passenger is in the car?
My personal experience as a passenger in a car where the driver is talking on the handless phone points to a very significant difference.

I can't back that up with solid scientific data but it is consistent with the scientific studies which have been done.

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The Rabbit
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quote:
So I wouldn't say that bans that exclude handsfree devices automatically presume that the riskiest behaviour is taking a hand off the wheel. I think the riskiest behaviour is dividing your concentration between the operation of two devices.
I don't see how this constitutes a disagreement with my statement. If law makers believed that dividing your attention between the two devices was more dangerous than taking your hand off the wheel to do it, why would they choose to ignore the riskier activity?
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twinky
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Huh? They didn't.
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The Rabbit
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Now you've completely lost me.

You say that risk peaks when the driver is fiddling with the device. Do you think this is only true when the driver is using a hand to fiddle with the device or does risk also go up when a driver is fiddling with the device via voice commands?

Do you see the risk as coming primarily from using a hand or primarily from splitting your attention between the device and the road?

Are you trying to say that it takes more mental effort to use your hand to control a device than it does to use your voice to control the device.

Is this a function of the interface or a fundamental difference between operating something with your fingers vs your voice?

I don't necessarily disagree with the idea that operating a typical handheld electronic device while driving is riskier than operating devices that are built in to the car. But I don't think voice activation vs hand controls is the key reason. Devices that are built in to the car are typically designed with very simple interfaces and positioned so you can see them and the road at the same time.

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twinky
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quote:
Originally posted by The Rabbit:
Are you trying to say that it takes more mental effort to use your hand to control a device than it does to use your voice to control the device.

Yes. To choose a song on a portable music player or go through contacts on a touchscreen phone, you have to look at the device. It's not where your hands are, it's what you're looking at. That's why texting with the phone held below the window (to evade tickets in ban areas) is more dangerous than texting with the phone held, say, near the top of the steering wheel.

The single most important thing you need to be doing as a driver is looking around -- in front of you, in your mirrors, etc.

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BBegley
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One missing element in determining how effective bans on cell driving are is how many drivers are cell phone users.

Cell phone use has increased dramatically over the last decade. Bans on cells while driving may not decrease the number of cell related accidents, but may still result in fewer cell related accidents than would have occurred without the ban. If the percentage of cell owning drivers went up from 50% to 90%, but collisions involving cell phones only increased 10%, I would say the ban had an effect.

One other difficulty in measuring the involvement of cell phones in collisions is how many people admit that they were using a cell at the time of the accident.

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BBegley
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One missing element in determining how effective bans on cell driving are is how many drivers are cell phone users.

Cell phone use has increased dramatically over the last decade. Bans on cells while driving may not decrease the number of cell related accidents, but may still result in fewer cell related accidents than would have occurred without the ban. If the percentage of cell owning drivers went up from 50% to 90%, but collisions involving cell phones only increased 10%, I would say the ban had an effect.

One other difficulty in measuring the involvement of cell phones in collisions is how many people admit that they were using a cell at the time of the accident.

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