June 30, 2011



On the road, off the phone

By Lisa Linck

Monday is Independence Day, and with it many people will hit the road to celebrate with friends and family. If you are one of them, take heed with this article, “On the road, off the phone.” Nearly one out of every four motor vehicle crashes involve cell phone use. 62 percent of drivers recognize that talking on a cell phone is a very serious threat to their personal safety. Yet more than two out of every three drivers admit to talking on their cell phone in the past month.1

Why the disconnect?  It’s important to understand the three main kinds of distraction:

1.      Visual:  Eyes on road

2.      Mechanical:  Hands on wheel

3.      Cognitive

4.       Mind on driving

Safe driving is about more than hands on the wheel and eyes on the road – it’s about focusing solely on the task of driving. When drivers engage in two activities that require a great amount of mental focus, the brain quickly switches between those tasks sequentially. As a result, the brain suffers from inattention blindness.

As it switches its focus and attention back and forth, the brain loses its ability to process all the eyes see and only a portion of the information is captured. In this situation, drivers look out the windshield, but do not see up to 50% of the driving environment.2 In fact, the brain is so overloaded that not all critical driving cues such as red lights, stop signs and pedestrians are delivered to the brain.

Did you know?  Cell phone use behind the wheel is a growing concern. According to CTIA – The Wireless Association, in 1995, cell phone subscriptions covered only 11 percent of the U.S. population. By 2010, that number grew to 93%. As the number of cell phone users continues to increase, so does the number of drivers distracted by cell phones.

Most people understand the visual and mechanical distractions caused by texting behind the wheel. These are obvious distractions, as they take both the driver’s hands off the wheel and eyes off the road. But did you know:

  • 2 percent of crashes involve texting behind the wheel, but 21% of crashes involve cell phone conversations (both hands-free and handheld)3
  • At any given moment, 0.6 percent of drivers are visibly manipulating handheld devices while 9% of drivers are talking on cell phones4

Correcting Common Misconceptions. Talking on a cell phone, putting on makeup, eating fast food, tuning your radio or reading a map are all dangerous activities to do while driving. However, cell phone driving is a visual, mechanical and cognitive distraction. You must consider duration and frequency. Thousands of people use cell phones while driving and conversations often last for several minutes. Determining contributing factors for motor vehicle crash data is a challenge because not all police reports capture that data. The National Safety Council believes estimates surrounding cell phone crashes are likely conservative. Passengers are a safety benefit for adult drivers as they act as an extra set of eyes. A passenger in a vehicle is aware of the driving situation and can adjust his or her conversation accordingly. However, the person on the other end of the phone call isn’t present, so he or she cannot adjust the conversation when the driving environment becomes more challenging. Also, a cell phone conversation often carries a certain obligation of immediacy to respond.

What you can do. If you are tempted to use your cell phone when driving:

•         Change your voicemail greeting to indicate you are driving and will call back when safely parked

•         Put your cell phone in your trunk or glove box

•         Turn your cell phone on silent

•         If you need to contact someone, pull over to a safe location and put your vehicle in park

If you are a passenger and the driver wants to use a cell phone:

•         Tell the driver you are uncomfortable with his or her cell phone use

If you are talking to someone who is driving:

•         Ask the person to call you when he or she is parked in a safe location

•         Tell the person you will call back later

1 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety Survey, 2010

2 Strayer, 2007

3 NSC Attributable Risk Estimate Model, 2009

4 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2010