Shut Up And Drive

Ken AshfordPopular CultureLeave a Comment

On July 1, California and Washington joined the list of states (including New York) which ban talking on cell phones while driving.

North Carolina, for local readers of this blog, has no such ban in place unless you are a teenagers under the age of 18 or a school bus driver.  But a unviersal ban is probably likely, in every state nationwide.

There’s a lot of talking-while-driving out there.  In 2007, a survey of 1,200 drivers by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. found that 73 admitted to having talked on the phone while driving.   Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported about 6 percent of drivers were using hand-held cellphones at any moment, based on observational data.

To date, these bans allow you to talk handsfree on your cell phone while driving, and so there is a rush to get handsfree Bluetooth headphones, or Bluetooth systems that integrate with your car radio.

But is this any safer?

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 yakking 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.

Fair enough, but then wouldn’t this apply to drivers who chat away with people in the car with them?

I bring this up because I recently went handfree with my mobile phone.  I don’t even have a headset; it’s all through the radio.  I really haven’t tried it out, but it certainly seems a great deal safer than holding a phone, or even having a headset (which necessarily will block hearing in one ear).