Talking On A Cell Phone Isn't The Only Way To Distract A Driver

from the tunnel-vision dept

There’s always a lot of debate about laws that ban using cell phones while driving. While the laws are generally well-meaning, the problem is that single out just one distraction and try to crack down on it by making it illegal — ignoring the myriad other ways drivers amuse themselves instead of paying attention to the road. There’s plenty of science that proponents of these laws cite, such as studies showing that the way our brains multi-task can cause delayed reponses. Another similar study is out, and it delivers very similar results (via Textually), saying that the brain experiences a bottleneck when it tries to do more than one task at a time, such as when driving and talking on the phone. The researchers say the results “support the case for a complete ban on the use of mobile phones when driving”, according to the BBC, but again, it’s unclear why phones get singled out. The researchers didn’t look at the specific effects of phone use, or even the effect of distractions on drivers; rather, they only examined what happens to the brain when it’s asked to perform more than one task at a time. So it could be said that their research supports the ban of talking to passengers while driving, or fiddling with the radio, or drinking coffee — anything but the act of driving itself. Clearly the use of a mobile phone while driving can be a distraction to drivers, but labeling it the only distraction worth doing something about is short-sighted and off the mark.

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Comments on “Talking On A Cell Phone Isn't The Only Way To Distract A Driver”

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dorpus says:

Re: Re: Wouldn't it be cool if

Show me anywhere in history where this happened. and then tell me why talking on a cell phone is the only distraction in a car.

There was an accident in Japan last year where a driver talking on a cell phone plowed into a group of 40 kindergarten kids, injuring 31 and killing 5 of them. One of the kids was pinned under the tire and got his face turned into peanut butter before he died. But Techdirt always deletes my post when I post the link.

KB says:

Re: Re: Wouldn't it be cool if

It’s not the ONLY distraction. In juxtaposition to this argument. The irresponsible drivers who spend their whole time on the road talking on their phone use this argument to justify non-action.

ALL activity other than driving is dangerous. Start prosecuting people for reckless driving or driving without undue care and attention for ALL such offenses.

To say that cell phone usage shouldn’t be banned just because it isn’t the only distraction is sheer stupidity. Let’s legalise Heroin too then, it isn’t the only addictive drug…

Bumbling old fool (profile) says:

Re: Re: It's the compression...

One more word is needed for you to understand: Lossy.

signal clarity is thrown away in the compression.

The sound you get out after decompression is not as “good” as the sound that went in.

You can practice this with your favorite MP3 ripping app all day. Rip an MP3 into 2k/s and then into 256k/s. Take note of the quality difference. Then try to guess what chord is being played on a guitar. One is MUCH easier for your brain to figure out.

Devil's Advocate says:

Re: Re: Re:2 It's the compression...

Nor does compression imply loss of signal clarity. Signal clarity is mostly dervied from a simple signal to noise ratio (SNR), so loss of signal clarity only happens if the signal (i.e someone talking) is reduced or the noise is increased. If I were to remove for example all sounds in frequencies outside the range of human speech (which are usaully considered noise since our brain still needs to process them but they are not our desired signal) I’m actually increasing the SNR, improving the signal clarity and reducing the size of the data being sent or “compressing it”.
All of this is not to say that the quality of cellphones doesn’t force you to listen harder and make a bad situation worse, but just to say that throwing in a lot of technical mumbo jumbo in an argument doesn’t make you right.

Bumbling old fool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 It's the compression...

Thats alot of words you used.

The simple thing being illustrated is that the extremely narrow bandwidth that traditional phone communications being is so incredibly narrow that incredibly harsh lossy compression has to be used in order get the signal through the pipes (not a truck), and as such requires much greater processing power from the brain in order to be able to interpret the signal and extract from it the desired human speech.

This doesnt make the “cellphone” the culprit, rather the PSTN is the culprit. There has been the exact same size “pipe” available to all calls for a very long time. It was adequate way back when, but the entire system needs an overhaul. Its not going to happen, probably not ever. So a disruptive technology will have to usurp the PSTN before we get decent quality telephony.

Devil's Advocate says:

Re: Re: Re:4 It's the compression...

I think you’re missing the point. The point was that you’re concentrating on you phone calls either way and blaming the technology for not making things easier is a futile argument.
It’s not the compression that makes talking on the phone while driving dangerous, it’s the talking. The time your brain spends on making out speech (which it’s quite used to doing bt”w, thanks evolution) is nothing compared to how much time you spend thinking on the topics raised by the person you’re talking to and generally participating in the conversation.
And I know I used a lot of words, that was the point. We can all (well not all of us but at least a few other people here) drop in a lot of cool words like “Lossy”, “Bandwith” and “PSTN”. Hell, we can throw in E1’s, dynamically switched networks and FFT for good measure but it won’t do any good. The question is not who knows more about cellphone audio compression (I’ll assume you do and leave it at that) but wether the compression can really be blamed for anything more than being annoying.
The point of the article was that there are many other distractions that may or may not be as bad as cellphones, so I don’t see why the exact reason they sound worse than a person sitting in the car with you is important. We can all I agree they do and leave the technical stuff alone.

Bumbling old fool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 It's the compression..

We actually agree, sort of.

I’m not blaming the technology, as much as illustrating a deficiency. And a major point that people dont understand when talking on cell while driving is that it DOES take that much more brain power to talk on a phone than it does to talk to a person next to you.

Most people aren’t stupid, they are simply mi-educated. Correct their knowledge deficiencies and in turn, they will act appropiately. (that and teach insurance companies not to cover wrecks where the driver was ona cell, and we’ll have an instant remedy(tm).)

The reasons behind it are irrelevant, as you imply.

The average “talk on the phone while driving” driver justifies this act to themselves by saying its no more dangerous. Our friggin brilliant politicians that think that hands free kits will save us all dont understand what makes it dangerous either. Regardless of the fact that every study that compares hands free kids to regular cell usage has found absolutely no reason to use a hands free kit.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:6 It's the compressi

i’ve not seen any study that says there’s no difference between hands-free and actually holding the cell phone. i’ve seen studies that say the response time isn’t that much difference between people using each. but i bet there’s hell of a lot of difference between people changing lanes, making turns, etc. with just one hand as opposed to people with two hands.

i also find it much easier to make talking on the phone a secondary matter when its a hands-free set. when i’m holding the phone, i tend to focus on it more, mainly because its now become a physical distraction as opposed to a mental one.

people who say hands-free sets make no difference are people who want to be able to drive the car while holding their cell phone and they’re just trying to rationalize it without actually looking at ALL aspects of talking on the phone. its not just a mental distraction, its physical (at least when you’re holding it).

i hate watching people drive with one hand busy doing something else. i don’t mind people who drive with one hand, but i want the other hand at the ready. if its holding something and you need it suddenly, your response time with that hand will be definitively a lot slower than if you were using a hands-free device. you don’t even need a study to show that. its common sense.

Bumbling old fool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 It's the compression...

Compression does not have to be lossy.


But cell phones are NOT using lossless compression. Lossy compression is being used. Extremely lossy compression. which requires the brain to use more resources to process the signal, which removes some resources that could be used to pay attention to… driving.

Bumbling old fool (profile) says:

Re: It's the compression...

Correct. (and thank you for proving there is more than one person in the world who understands this)

The legislation that will “Fix” the distraction is the legislation that mandates a “minumum voice quality” upon the carriers.

That’s not likely to happen any time soon (if ever), so we’ll instead keep hearing news stories about new laws associated with getting consumers to purchase more paraphenilia that lures them into a false sense of security by “freeing their hands”. At least they convinced consumers to spend more money in their blind efforts to “save the children”. and hey, just look at how much money the accessory markets are making now. That must be great for tax revenue.

If having your hands free actually helped significantly, then my coffee cup should be whats illegal (as its never in the cupholder), not my phone.

Devil's Advocate says:

Re: Re: It's the compression...

So it’s essentially the quality of the phone call making the driver listen harder and not pay attention?
Silly me, I thought people already put some thought into their conversations, on the phone or otherwise. I think that if you think that’s the real issue here you’ve never had anyone argue in the backseat.
Wouldn’t it be nice though if we could reduce all our safety issues with cars to audio sampling problems…

Space Pope says:


Couldn’t a pretty convincing argument be made that driving in and of itself requires a person’s brain to do more than one thing? We should be looking very closely at outlawing all standard transmission automobiles as those require the the coordinated use of both hands AND both feet, a task that would seriously stress the multi-tasking capabilities of the human mind and has, certainly, led to untold numbers of accidents.

Gustavo says:

They're annoying

I think there are two main reasons why the cell phones are singled out.
One is that it is (relatively) news and stands out as an unnatural use in the car.
The other, I think, is that cell phones are irritating to a lot of people in the sense that they find it annoying when (for instance) the other person interrupts their chatting to answer the phone (and how they put you aside so quickly). And people may think like that even though they use their phones the same way.

Ban them!!! why did it took you so long??? says:

Driving like drunks!

It’s been proven that driving while talking on the phone is the same as driving while intoxicated… not to mention that even when people are using a hands-free device, they either hold the phone or the darn cable.

I really hope the make it a law.

I rather see dumbasses looking like cyborgs, than having the idiot in front of me driving like a complete idiot.

Also, while we are at it… ban stoopid SUVs.

Ban them!!! why did it took you so long??? says:

Driving like drunks!

It’s been proven that driving while talking on the phone is the same as driving while intoxicated… not to mention that even when people are using a hands-free device, they either hold the phone or the darn cable.

I really hope the make it a law.

I rather see dumbasses looking like cyborgs with their bluetooth devices, than having the idiot in front of me driving like a complete idiot.

Also, while we are at it… ban stoopid SUVs.

MonkeyByte says:

RE: Driving?

Couldn’t a pretty convincing argument be made that driving in and of itself requires a person’s brain to do more than one thing? We should be looking very closely at outlawing all standard transmission automobiles as those require the the coordinated use of both hands AND both feet

I think you mean automatic since driving manual forces you to focus more on diving your car than being lazy and having a computer drive it for you. Also using the other foot to down shift while breaking a manual will always stop faster than its automatic counter part under identical situations.

Manual = Serious Drivers
Automatic = Lazy inattentive Drivers

Someone Who Cares says:

What about the kids

If talking on a cell phone is illegal; I want the follwoing things to be illegal as well;

1) Parents driving infants who cry
2) Parents with children between the of of 2 and 10 who won’t sit down in thier seat and keep asking “are we there yet?” and hitting their siblings
3) putting on makeup while driving
4) Smoking while driving
5) opening any beverage container
6) Eating
7) Singing along with the radio

All of those activities require as much or more of our attention then actually holding a cell phone and talking into it. Somehow however, talking on a cell phone has become akin to drinking and driving.
Soon there will be a “war on cell phones while driving” to accompany the so called war on drugs–and it will all be “for our children”

UniBoy says:

Yield to the practical!

It will not be practical to ban on driver distractions. If you spend just a little bit of time driving around the city or suburbs, you will see your share of idiot action by drivers with a cell phone glued to one ear. Clearly, based on common experience, the cell phone is one of the WORST distractions out there. If making people pull over to make a call would make all of us a little safer, then that seems reasonable. Yes, it is an inconvenience. It is also inconvenient to drive the speed limit and stop for all those pesky red lights too.

Anonymous Coward says:

i’ve been in a car trying to talk to someone but couldn’t comprehend them because of either a) loud stereo b) other people talking c) noise from the car engine d) noise from other cars (stereos, engines, brakes… e) other outside noises f) person talked too quitetly

wouldn’t these factors cause the brain to “process” the right signal for communication?

now, while it is true that cell phones are distracting for driving, just about everything else is. heck, driving is distracting for driving. i mean, when you look at your Rearview mirror/side view mirros, you take your eye off the road ahead. of course these activitys take tenths of a second, but that’s more than enough time to have an accident happen. i’m all for goverment safety regulation, but laws for the sake of saying you did something, come on…

former T-mobile Employee says:

It's the peripheral vision, and lack of turning th

Notice when you hold a cell phone (or any phone ) to the side of your head how you mess up your ability to turn your range of vsion from side to side, as you are more”stiff-necked”.

Do what I do as a compromise — when driving and using the cell, if you need to change lanes, merge, etc.. tell the caller on the other end “hold on” and put the damn thing down and concentrate on what you are doing. once you are back in zombie 15mph straightlinestiuck in traffic, resume your call. plskthx

dazcon5 says:


You can’t regulate human stupidity. All we need is a “multitask” test. If you can’t chew gum and walk at the same time you can’t have any distractions in the car. Face it people are stupid and will always do stupid things especially while operating a motor vehicle. Just make the driving test exceptionally hard.

JustDave says:

Re: drivers

Dazcon5 says:
“You can’t regulate human stupidity. All we need is a “multitask” test. If you can’t chew gum and walk at the same time you can’t have any distractions in the car. Face it people are stupid and will always do stupid things especially while operating a motor vehicle. Just make the driving test exceptionally hard.”

Add my sister to that list!

Bigpicture says:

Cell Phone Distraction

I suppose that cell phones are singled out because of the pervasiveness of the phenomena. There are probably now more people who use cell phones in their vehicles, than drink coffee or who have passengers. Also it is the duration of the distraction, coffee is at most a 5 second distraction per sip. How many cell phone conversations last less than a minute? How many last more than 5 minutes? How much distraction is there just trying to find the cell phone to answer a call?

They cannot accurately determine how many accidents are caused / contributed to by cell phone distraction, because people lie. But I live in a northern town, where the next town to the south is over 300 miles away. There is a section of the highway in the middle with no cell phone service. There is probably a half dozen or more fatalities a year on that highway, and guess what section of highway has the least accidents and fatalities?

ConceptJunkie (profile) says:

Re: Cell Phone Distraction

and guess what section of highway has the least accidents and fatalities?

The section with no intersections and straight uninterrupted stretches of road?

Correlation is not causation.

The problem with this legislation is that cell phones aren’t the real problem, bad drivers are the real problem, but since our economy seems to require we rubber stamp driving applications, there will always be plenty of incompetent drivers to be distracted to catastrophe by cell phones or any of the dozens of other things drivers have to (or choose to) contend with while on the road.

Besides, I would guess that attractive women in sports cars are far more dangerous than cell phones… not themselves, but for all the distracted men around them. 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:

I agree completely that cell phone use has been WARRANTLESSLY singled out as a distraction because people hold their phones up at a visible level and can be seen with the glowing screens in the dark (given that scientific logic, you must also argue that insects were born from rocks, since every time you turn over a rock you see 20+ insects). The grotesque reactionary fervor to pass anti-cell phone laws is just a sublime example of how arrogant this American “me me me” society has gotten.

In many states and in Washington, DC it’s illegal for the driver of the car to operate a vehicle without a hands-free device. I wonder if a real liability isn’t alleviated, however, with a hands-free device to prevent me from having one hand used in conjunction with an unnatural head-angle to balance the phone as well as drive. Heaven forbid I slip with the phone and have to pick it up off the floor of the car, or out from under the gas or brake pedals!

On the other hand, doesn’t this sound like something the headset manufacturers would likely contribute big dollars to lobby for? ::grumble:: That does it… we’re not leaving here until SOMEBODY is wearing tin-foil hats!

Anonymous of Course says:

It's the Frequency Dan

The convoluted logic of those wanting to do what
they want to do despite the facts is a marvel to behold.

Distracted driving is bad. Talking on a cell phone is
distracting. It follows that talking on a cell phone
while driving is bad. Distracted driving is against the
law in this state, Wisconsin, so it’s not a far reach to
say driving while talking on a cell phone is against the
law… it only awaits a judge’s interpretation as such
and it will be so.

Any source of distraction is bad. I’ve been a passenger
in two wrecks where the driver was screwing around
with the radio or heater controls. “Dave, that car’s
not moving” … “Oh, yeah”

The sheer numbers of morons yacking on the cell
phone as they blissfully careen down the interstate,
while exhibiting a panoply of unsafe driving practices
garners cell phones special attention.

I commute a couple of hours every day and I’ve seen
a serious degradation in driving skills due to cell phones.
It is my opinion based on many hours of observation
that talking on a cell phone does degrade a driver’s
performance. Every study I’ve seen supports this
stand, the Human Factors study being most damming.

You may be able to drive OK while on the cell phone,
you may be able to drive OK after consuming a few
alcoholic beverages. But enough people drive impaired
by these actions that neither should be tolerated.

Get over it, Shut up, and Drive.

Smacky Mouse (user link) says:


Its easy to see why they keep going after cell phones instead of cracking down on other driving distractions: Politicians want to be seen as addressing problems, but don’t actually care if their solutions are particularly effective. Just so long as people THINK they are doing their jobs.

As for other distractions, maybe we should make it illegal to drive with the windows open. After all, loud, rushing winds can be distracting, not to mention the possibility of a bee flying in…

frankthetank says:

i’m sure i can find an accident caused by a person changing the radio station, where many childeren were injured/killed. hell i’m sure i can find someone who wasn’t doing anything except driving where the tragic event happened. by your standards, if someone was electrocuted, then we should band electricity. i say go for it. that way, we don’t have any of this problem.

not saying that i don’t care. i’m just saying that using one sensational event to argue for something is pointless.

anyway the point of the article is saying that it’s not just cell phones that are dangerous.

Ron (profile) says:

Phone vs Human

The problem is not really with voice quality or signal strength or hands free operation or no phone at all. When talking to a person sitting in next to you in the vehicle, that person can see the situation you’re in. They will realize that you stopped talking to concentrate on a situation in traffic or to check position, or whatever. They will stop talking and wait until you can safely split your attention. But, the person on the phone has no such clue. And, by the time you’ve stopped talking, you no longer have the attention left to explain to them what’s going on. They will keep demanding a part of your attention.
However, none of this excuses not paying attention to what’s most important: driving the car. If you’re hurtling down the road in 2.5 tons of steel at 45 mph and a kid runs out from between two parked cars (OK, stupid kid, but …) your concentration on the road and conditions will be the deciding factor on whether that kid stays alive. Is it really gonna be more important that you find out via the phone that Johnny got a B in gym class?
As to other disctractions: a friend’s brother ran over and killed a 12 year old boy. His distraction was that he was looking at his CD player to find out what track was on. He was 17 at the time.

|333173|3|_||3 says:

Ron has it right.

The main distraction from a person is the fact that they cannot see what is going on, whereas a person in the car can shut up while you do some complex manouevere, the guy on the ‘phone will keep on talking, and get all upset because you did not listen to them.

HTe reason for the number of crashes on that dead straight stretch of road mentioned above is nothing to do with the ‘phone signal, it is because drivers zone out, come off the road onto the shoulder , over-correct, and hit a tree, or, alternaltively, find themselves in the wrong lane and about to hit an artic, and crash into it or a tree. IF you look at crash stats for South Australia, there are a disproprotionaltly high number of people who die in the far north or on the MElbourne road in open country on dead straight sections for precisely this reason.

Anonymous Coward says:

I think it’s just annoying to see someone doing 50-55 on the freeway, or swerving around in their lane, or not paying attention when changing lanes, or tailgating and driving way too fast, and then when you see who’s driving it, it’s someone that has a phone up to their ear. This is probably why most people pay more attention to the phone-to-ear issue.

Xiera says:

Here's an idea...

Ban driving. Or better yet, add a requirement to getting a license that the applicant NOT be a dumbass. Honestly, I think banning cell phones while driving is awful, but people need to LEARN THEIR LIMITS: one cannot possibly perform as well driving and talking on the phone (or any other distracting — or rather detracting — activity), but it does not mean that they cannot perform the task sufficiently. If you want to use your phone, move into the travel lane, don’t pass people, and don’t be an asshole while doing so. It’s simple common sense, but apparently not everyone is so sound in their logic.

SFGary (user link) says:

Some of the commenters arguing against banning cellphone usage in cars are using the same type of arguments used to fight the ban on smoking in public places or the fatuous smoking does not cause cancer arguments.

Its not too difficult to see the problems: weaving on the roads, overly careful and slower than posted speed limits on roads, rash running of red lights, making dangerous turns without using signals and a number of other red flags. People seem to forget that driving is a privilege and not a right. Ban the mofos…

Sal (profile) says:

Cell Phones

I have to say, having done many things while driving, I have found NONE as distracting as talking on a cell phone, even using a headset. Even talking with someone IN the same car with me was not as distracting. Somehow, talking with someone who is not there is much more distracting. I don’t know WHY this is but it certainly it was the case for me.

|333173|3|_||3 says:

In MD a few years back, the written test could be passed by anyone over seven who was sober, since two out of three answers werre obviously wrong:
A little old lady is crossing the road ahead. Do you:
1) run her down
2) swerve round her, hooting, swear at her and curse her ancestry
3) stop and wait foir her to finish crossing

fail a test like that.

In many places you cannot drive wearing headphones. you need to plug your phone into the steroe or set it to loudspeaker.

Nasty Old Geezer says:

Flip the telescope around

THe solution is not to ban distractions, but to mandate remote-control automated driving systems. You enter your destination in the on-board computer, it talks to the central routing service and plots the “best” route.

Talk, eat, sing, change clothes, or have sex all you want, the system gets you there without killing me in the process.

If that seems outrageous, think about being tailgated at 75 mph by a soccer mom talking on the cell phone, running the DVD player, eating supper, and dealing with 6 noisy kids in a 3 ton SUV. I’ll take my chances with a computer system.

jessica says:

driving and talking

Yes, the government is jumping on only one of the many distractions we have while driving but this is be cause it is one that is becoming more dangerous as time passes. A passenger can see the road and know that it is not safe to bother the driver but some one on the phone can not see what road conditions the driver is dealing with. Also with text messaging drivers are reading and sending messages instead of talking

Daniella says:

All you people are sitting here bitching about random crap trying to defend the government. None of you are seeing how stupid it all really is. I personally drive with one hand ALL THE TIME. I feel uncomfortable driving with two hands so what the hell is the difference of holding my phone to my ear and talking as opposed to talking to someone next to me? At least when I’m on the phone I’m looking at the road, half the time I have someone next to me I glance at them to engage in an actual conversation. Instead of making it illegal to talk on the phone and drive, maybe we should be focusing a little more on who is getting their licenses now adays. I can’t tell you how many morons I get in front of me everyday, driving 15 miles under the speed limit…seems more like their walking than driving. Hell I can run faster than some drivers. How about those drivers who come to yeilds where there is absolutally NO ONE around and it is CLEARLY safe to go, and they come to a dead stop.

So stop bitching about talking on a cell phone while driving. If it effects your driving than you shouldn’t be driving period because it’s obvious you don’t know how to. If you are a responsible driver (which you should be if you have a license, otherwise our DMVs aren’t doing a very good job judging driving skills) than you should be able to politely say “HOLD ON A MINUTE” if you need to seriously concentrate on switching lanes and what not. And in response to someone’s comment earlier about talking about how great talking on cell phones is when you’re in jail after hitting 20 kids in a crosswalk or whatever the hell their little senario was, you seriously need to open your eyes. That is more likely to happen when you are just being a complete idiot, which most of you probably are. AND LAST TIME I CHECKED, YOU DONT DRIVE A CAR WITH YOUR MOUTH. So why don’t you go complain about a topic you actually know something about.

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