July 20, 2009

On cellphone use in cars

Posted in Behaviour, Society at 18:11 by graham

A very interesting article in the New-York Times on the research behind the risks of being distracted by a cellphone whilst driving:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/technology/19distracted.html

Here’s some excerpts:

in a survey of 1,506 people last year by Nationwide Mutual Insurance, 81 percent of cellphone owners acknowledged that they talk on phones while driving, and 98 percent considered themselves safe drivers. But 45 percent said they had been hit or nearly hit by a driver talking on a phone.

That’s the Lake Wobegon effect, the tendency for overestimate their capabilities in relation to others.

…research, showing that multitasking drivers are four times as likely to crash as people who are focused on driving, matches the findings of two studies, in Canada and in Australia, of drivers on actual roads. The highway safety administration estimates that drivers using a hand-held device are at 1.3 times greater risk of a crash or near crash, and at three times the risk when dialing, compared with others who are simply driving. The agency based its conclusions on research from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which placed cameras inside cars to monitor drivers for more than a year. The study found cellphones to be the most common cause of driver distraction. Research also shows that drivers conversing with fellow passengers do not present the same danger, because adult riders help keep drivers alert and point out dangerous conditions and tend to talk less in heavy traffic or hazardous weather.

The research shows that having a conversation on a hands-free sets is as dangerous as a conversation on a handheld phone – the problem is that, unlike a passenger, the person on the phone doesn’t stop distracting you when road conditions change, and they aren’t a second pair of eyes compensating for your distraction.

So if the research is so strong, there are so many lives to be saved, how come we haven’t solved this one yet. Read on:

Joe Simitian, a state senator in California, managed to get his hands-free legislation, an effort he began in 2001, passed in 2006. He argued, based on data collected by the California Highway Patrol, that drivers using cellphones caused more fatalities than all the drivers distracted by eating, children, pets or personal hygiene. In each previous year, the bill was killed — after lobbying by cellphone carriers, including Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile. Mr. Simitian said that in the first two years, he would visit the offices of his colleagues on the Transportation Committee on the day of the vote and “find three cellphone industry lobbyists sitting in the legislator’s office,” Mr. Simitian said. “They’d just smile.”

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