Thursday, January 27, 2011

Driven to distraction

According to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and the scientific journal published by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, cell phone distraction causes about 2,600 deaths every year in the U.S. After Al Quaeda caused that many innocent U.S. citizens to die, we bombed two countries. I guess killing us one or two at a time doesn’t count.(Yes, I'm aware that the real irony in this photo is that if Osama bin Laden had only known that Wall Street itself was in fact planning a far bigger assault on American values - one that would result in the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008, he would never have authorized this attack.)
I note that the cell phone lobby has been buzzing up a team of New Hampshire students that invented a sensor-laden car steering wheel that, in theory, could reduce texting while driving. Their steering wheel may in fact be a good thing, but any time lobbyists push something, I'm suspicious.

We have, I guess, as a society reached some kind of consensus that texting while driving is beyond stupid. And in truth, some in the cell phone industry have decided this is a battle not worth fighting. But not all in the industry has; there are those who, state-by-state, are suggesting that we should lump texting-while-driving in with many other potential distractions, such as eating while driving, in the hopes that legislators will, ahem, table the issue altogether. While I think we've reached a point where most people disavow texting while driving, unfortunately 75% of all drivers regularly talk on their phones while driving.

Why is this a motorcyclists' issue? It selectively impacts motorcyclists because we are something like 35 times more likely to be killed and injured in two-vehicle accidents than are car drivers. (And we hardly ever do it ourselves, so for once we can point the finger. Lots of motorcyclists are killed by speeding car drivers, but since we speed more than they do, whining about that won't get us much sympathy.) 

Seriously, what pisses me off is that instead of launching a cruise-missile attack on Nokia's, or T-Mobile's headquarters, we respond to thousands of unwarranted deaths with what amounts to a $20 fine for sneaking box cutters onto commercial aircraft, and a few PSA ads about the safe use of sharp implements...

The whole hands-on-the-steering-wheel issue is completely disingenuous, anyway. I lived in California while that state legislature debated it's phoning-while-driving law. The California law, in theory, penalizes cellular telephone use by drivers. One its face, this would seem to be a victory for motorcyclists. After all, we are routinely knocked down by dumbass SUV/truck/car drivers chattering on their phones instead of concentrating on driving. But in fact, it’s a victory for the cell phone lobby and a defeat for us.

The California law only bans the use of hand held phones. That’s why the telecom giants allowed it to reach Arnold’s desk; virtually every new phone has some kind of hands-free capability. So a law that imposes fines for hand held phones is good for business; it will encourage people to update their phone. Not that the fine ($20 for a first offense, $50 for subsequent offenses) is much of a deterrent, or that the California Highway Patrol knocks itself out for an offense that the State has determined is barely worth penalizing.

The suggestion that driving while talking on the phone is dangerous because people are holding the phone and not the steering wheel is as ridiculous as suggesting that the problem with drinking and driving is holding the drink.
If there was any justice in the California legislature, Schwarzenegger would've read the proposed bill and said, “Ziss iss boolscheiss.” He should have terminated it and insisted on a law that made Californians safer, better drivers – and would save a bunch of motorcyclists’ lives. The just law would ban all cell phone use in moving vehicles.

Cell phones are not dangerous because the people who use them are driving one-handed. There are plenty of handicapped drivers on the road who literally only have one hand, and many of them are perfectly good drivers. (In Wendover, NV I once saw a one-armed motorcyclist.) Cell phones are dangerous because people talking on the phone are not concentrating on traffic.

Let’s get this straight: an overwhelming body of research has proven that the human brain cannot multitask. When people think they are multitasking they are really just rapidly switching between tasks. Drivers talking on the phone – whether they are holding it or not – are only concentrating on traffic during lulls in conversation.

It is important to understand that this is totally different than having a conversation with a live adult passenger in the car. A passenger will instinctively interrupt conversation in situations where the driver needs to pay maximum attention to traffic. In fact, a passenger is a second pair of eyes and makes the driver safer. It’s not an accident that all commercial aircraft fly with a copilot.

But the person on the other end of a cell phone conversation has no idea what the driver is up to. Take this example; a conversation between Dr. Deadlyhummer and his assistant Nurse Nofault. The Doctor, traveling between his office and the hospital, needs to change lanes and head for the off ramp. At that moment, there’s a motorcycle is in his blind spot, migrating across lanes in the other direction. At the worst possible time, Nurse Nofault starts reciting Mrs. Fadingpatient’s critical lab results to Dr. Deadlyhummer. The doctor, who is normally a decent driver, makes his lane change without shoulder checking.

Ironically, our hapless motorcyclist would be safer if the deadly doctor was using a handheld phone. At least then, the rider might notice the phone in time to go on red alert, ready to take evasive action on a moment’s notice. Talk about your law of unintended consequence.

If you think I’m exaggerating the dangers of distracted drivers, you’re wrong. There is a huge body of research that proves such drivers are about as dangerous as drivers at typical alcohol impairment thresholds. Most of this research, incidentally is from what Ronald Dumsfeld – oops, I mean 'Donald Rumsfeld' calls Old Europe. Those countries have, as a group, far tougher licensing standards than U.S. states and as a result, the average European driver is more skilled and engaged than the average U.S. driver. If they can’t drive and talk on the phone, we sure can’t.

In many of those countries, cell phone use by drivers is banned outright. The enthusiasm with which European traffic cops enforce the rules – and European courts impose penalties – are reminiscent of drunk driving enforcement. That’s in line with the social cost of this very selfish, stupid habit. But we get a $20 fine. I’m reminded of the old bumper sticker that read: “Don’t drink and drive – you might hit a bump and spill your drink.”

Most of our highway safety statistical analysis is carried out by the insurance industry, which doesn’t necessarily care about cell phone related accidents. (Big Insurance television ads create the impression that those companies want to reduce accident rates. They don’t. In a world without accidents, insurance would serve no purpose. All those companies actually want to reduce are accidents they do not anticipate. Since cell use is widely dispersed in the driving population, its effects are now predictable. The insurance industry is fine with that.) Considering that insurance executives and high-powered politicians are themselves heavy cell users, it’s surprising California even passes a law with a $20 fine. The only consolation is that by banning the use of handheld phones, the law might give some injured motorcyclists easier recourse in a civil suit.

Here in the U.S., the cell phone industry has continuously fought a rear-guard action arguing that the statistics suggesting thousands of people are killed every year as a consequence of cell phone use by drivers are misleading. In fact, for a variety of reasons, cell phone use is grossly under-reported as a cause of accidents. The cell lobby points out that over the 10- to 15-year period in which cell phone penetration climbed from a handful of early adopters to saturation levels, vehicle deaths per passenger-mile dropped about 10-15%. 

They fail to take into account that over that same period, there were huge increases in seat-belt use and in the percentage of the total fleet equipped with air bags and ABS. Most importantly, over that period the per-capita death rate by drunk driving fell nearly 50%. That change alone easily accounts for all of the drop in passenger-mile death rates. So a more accurate way of looking at it is that over the last 20 years or so, we've convinced almost everyone to wear their seat belts, spent billions of dollars improving the crash-worthiness of our fleet, ensured that almost every car on the road has air bags and better brakes than ever... and for every life we've saved with all that, the cell phone industry has killed someone.

The cell phone industry will never, ever suggest doing anything that actually reduces the number of minutes we spend on our phones. In fact, they hold conferences where there are workshops devoted to encouraging us to stay on the phone as much as possible. That's why they set voicemail systems to work at an excrutiatingly slow pace. (The... person... you... wish... to... reach... is... unavailable... Please... leave... your... message... after... the... tone...............................................beep.)

The cell phone industry continues its mitigation efforts against the generally increasing realization that (although most drivers still do it) talking on the phone while driving is reckless. The industry's response has been to take the position that education, not regulation, is the solution. Right. That's ABATE and their fight against helmet legislation, all over again. “We don't want to wear helmets, we want to educate other drivers so they don't hit us.” I've got news for you: you can educate morons all you want, they're still morons. The other canard the cell phone lobbyists like to float is, “Well, we don't want to prevent people using their phones in an emergency.”

Hello? Is this the highway patrol? I've just seen a terrible accident! Some moron talking on his phone ran a stop sign and killed a bunch of guys on motorcycles.

Come on? Is anyone suggesting that you can't stop to make that call? Or that in the rare situations where time was so precious or traffic conditions so crazy that stopping was impractical, that an exception could be made?

It would, in fact, be easy to embed a device in each new car that simply jammed cell signals while the car was moving. Sadly, that common-sense solution will never happen n the legislative 'regulation-free zone' in which we live. Instead, we'll continue to buzz up disingenuous solutions like steering wheels that can tell when you're not holding on at 10 and 2.

What will work is social ostracization. Drunk driving rates have fallen for the same reason cigarette smoking and overt racism are now increasingly passé; because more and more people think that drunk drivers, smokers, or racists are losers, and when they see people doing those things, they don't hide their contempt.

In the interim, here's my solution. When you see someone talking on the phone while driving, honk your horn. Loud, and long. Hey, at least you'll be sure they notice you. 

Honk if you hate distracted drivers. Ironically, handheld phones are safer… for motorcyclists. In a perfect world, this selfish behavior would punish itself but at least this telltale hand-held-to-side-of-head pose is a warning to approaching riders that this driver is not to be trusted in traffic.

1 comment:

  1. "It is important to understand that this is totally different than having a conversation with a live adult passenger in the car. A passenger will instinctively interrupt conversation in situations where the driver needs to pay maximum attention to traffic. In fact, a passenger is a second pair of eyes and makes the driver safer."

    Mark, there's a lot more to it than that. Talking to a person you can't see or otherwise interact with physically actually takes an amazing amount of extra mental effort.

    When you are sitting next to someone you are talking to your brain is busy with thoughts and language. When you're talking on a phone in addition to the above your brain also is working to picture the other person. This is a totally subconscious process that you cannot control.

    Humans communicate on a much deeper level than sound. So our subconscious starts to fill in the body language, the location, the eye contact that it is deprived of.

    The brain is incredibly good at providing what the eyes and ears (and other senses) can't provide but it taxes virtually the same mental centers responsible for being able to drive without really thinking about it. Basically, it overloads that autopilot that allows us to arrive home from our commute and wonder how we got there (safely)...