Turns Out Not Everyone Drives Worse While Talking On A Phone (But You Probably Do)

from the so-how-do-you-deal-with-that? dept

For years, we’ve questioned the wisdom of straight-up “driving-while-yakking” legislation for a variety of reasons. It always seemed to strike at a symptom, and not the real problem, which is just outright bad driving. While some have falsely interpreted this to mean that we support free reign in letting people drive and talk on a phone, what we argued is more nuanced. The problem is when driving and talking makes things more dangerous. But the same could be true of driving and doing anything else — and unless we’re going to outlaw driving distractions one at a time, it’s sort of missing the point. Instead, the focus should be on better driving education on the dangers of being distracted. But, at the same time, there should be a realization that it’s not always a terrible thing for a driver to talk on a mobile phone.

In fact, Slashdot points us to a recent study that found a small number (a very small number) of people do not seem to drive worse while talking on their phones (and, in some cases, they even seem to drive better). These so-called “supertaskers” are apparently amazingly good at multitasking. Of course, this probably doesn’t apply to you and you (yes, you) probably do drive worse while talking on a mobile phone — which is why you shouldn’t do it. But shouldn’t we focus on stopping bad driving in general, rather than a blanket ban on driving while yakking?

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Comments on “Turns Out Not Everyone Drives Worse While Talking On A Phone (But You Probably Do)”

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Fair do's

I bought a £48’000 4×4 & I am too cheap to install a £30 hands free kit. I’m replying to this thread on my £300 iphone while doing 70mph on the motorway.
Also when I talk to my passengers I make sure I’m looking at them – its not like I should be looking at the road as my passengers won’t understand what I say unless I’m staring at them, I’m so super bright don’t U think?. Enough – give me a min to reach into the back seat for my shaver.

Does this sound like anyone you have seen on the roads recently LOL.

Ben (profile) says:

Enforcement is the legislative impetus

The problem, as I see it, is that a police officer can’t pull you over and ticket you for talking to someone else in the car. He can claim he saw you talking on a cell phone (driving one handed, other hand holding the phone to your ear) — which is why they tend to exempt “hands free” calling (which is pretty close to the same level of distraction).

I bet the courts would rule that being pulled over for “cell-phoning while driving” is automatically considered “proven guilty” if you happen to have a cell phone with you, even if you, in fact, were not using it (you’d probably have to get the cell phone records to prove you were not on _that_ phone at the time… keep extra phones handy!)

Consider it revenue enhancement and not traffic safety.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Enforcement is the legislative impetus

What state do you live in? In Connecticut, Mass, and Vermont; you can be pulled over for driving poorly – regardless of the reason.

Being pulled over for driving while on a cell phone does not automatically end up with a “guilty”. I did, in fact, bring my cell phone bill into court to prove otherwise and won. Beyond that, it is the word of the police officer against yours – and you are probably a less reliable witness to the court in the case of a traffic ticket.

Ben (profile) says:

Re: Re: Enforcement is the legislative impetus

Pretty much exactly what I said. Had you not brought your cell phone bill I suspect you would have been found guilty.

I live in Massachusetts. Yes, I suspect that *anywhere* one can be pulled over for driving poorly, but one is unlikely to be found (presumed) guilty unless there is something that would have made it obvious to the officer (the officer stating you were on a cell phone; to which your recourse is having to prove otherwise by bringing your bill). He said/she said without evidence usually goes to whichever one is the officer.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Enforcement is the legislative impetus

Beyond that, it is the word of the police officer against yours – and you are probably a less reliable witness to the court in the case of a traffic ticket.

That’s the usual case in court. If a cop testifies that he witnessed that you commit a crime, that pretty much cinches the case. Cops don’t have to prove that they aren’t lying, you have to prove that they are.

Haywood (profile) says:

On most topics we agree, however

During a 10 minute drive yesterday, I saw 5 deadly dangerous drivers yacking on cell phones, and a few moderately dangerous ones doing the same.
second trip;
We drove another 80 miles yesterday, 4 different towns, I observed no exemplary yacking drivers, but quite a few dangerous ones.
You scoff when someone else brings up statistics or studies to prove a pointless point that you disagree with, but stoop to the same. Lies, damned lies and statistics.
I have been driving for 45 years, and have never seen anything like the driving since the advent of the cell phone. People have eaten Whoppers, changed babies, corrected kids in the back seat during most of the time I have bee driving, and they weren’t in full control of their vehicles. But they were spread thin, the average driver had his mind on the task at hand. Since about 1995 and getting worse by the day, 1 in 3 it seems is multi-tasking and in most cases, poorly.
I agree that some can do it well, not enough to support your statistics, but some can and perhaps will be unfairly punished when cell talking if finally banned for motor vehicle operators. In all fairness, some folks can drive pretty well at 2.0 alcohol level, they got banned along with those who can’t at .08

Hulser (profile) says:

Re: On most topics we agree, however

During a 10 minute drive yesterday, I saw 5 deadly dangerous drivers yacking on cell phones, and a few moderately dangerous ones doing the same.

So, how do your examples have any relevancy whatsoever to Mike’s point that we should be addressing the underlying problem of bad driving rather than the specific symptom of driving while talking on a cell phone? You imply that you disagree with Mike, but while you quibble about the accuracy of the study’s stats in the remainder of your post, don’t ever actually say anything that contradicts his main point.

Haywood (profile) says:

Re: Re: On most topics we agree, however

If that is what you want to take from it.
My main point is;
most other distracted driving has been going on for a long time, with little wide spread consequence. Since the widespread use of cell phones, it is epidemic.

My secondary point;
In all fairness, some folks can drive pretty well at 2.0 alcohol level, they got banned along with those who can’t at .08, and that has made the roads somewhat safer. Sorry for the inconvenience to the Irish.

I don’t believe in laws as a method of controlling behavior, when cell phones in cars are banned, only outlaws will have cell phones in cars.

Hulser (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: On most topics we agree, however

If that is what you want to take from it.

If you believe that I misinterpreted your post, please clarify (because your vague deflection doesn’t provide any actual information.)

My main point is;
most other distracted driving has been going on for a long time, with little wide spread consequence. Since the widespread use of cell phones, it is epidemic.

And I ask again, how does this relate at all to your implication that you disagree with Mike? He never said that the problem of distracted drivers wasn’t getting worse, so you could give a million examples of bad cell phone drivers and they would still would be irrelevant.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 On most topics we agree, however

Let me also bring into question Haywood’s unofficial survey. Haywood, what you observe is never going to be much more than anecdotal evidence. People are bad observers, miss things, see what they want to see. Your four town driving tour is not highly scientific and doesn’t offer actuarial value.

For example: “[in 80 mile, 4 town survey] I observed no exemplary yacking drivers, but quite a few dangerous ones.”
Do you understand that an observer would over-represent the bad phone-drivers, as they stand out from the pack? However, you would not observe the exemplary few supertaskers, since they would just blend in.

2gravey says:

Why stop there?

We need to ban every specific distractive behavior while driving. I, for one, think its long overdue that we pass a law banning building those little ships in bottles while driving. Don’t you see how incredibly dangerous that is? If we put our heads together, I’m sure we can up with 10,000 new badly needed driving while doing things laws.

DH's love child says:

But you’re still placing the blame on the distraction (phone) rather than the person. Multitasking while driving is distracting, whether that task is talking on the phone, shaving, putting on makeup, reading the newspaper, or flogging the dolphin. I am all for safe roads. I think, though, the emphasis needs to be on education. I also think that drivers should be required to have a driving test more often than most of us do. requiring one every 10 years at a minimum would make us all stay aware of the bad habits some of us have ( I include myself in that discussion).

Anonymous Coward says:

Because “bad driving” is a nebulous term. Legislating nebulousness rarely works.

You can legislate outcomes (you hit someone, you go to the pokey) or legislate preventative behaviors (driving “too fast,” driving without your headlights on at night, etc).

You could think about jacking up the penalties for hitting someone while being on a cell phone — that’s easy enough to get the cell tower logs for, but that fails for texting. People are pressing buttons while driving, accident occurs, no transmission happens, no log of transmission exists. So after the accident punishment wouldn’t work in the case of texting because it cannot be proven to have occurred, unlike talking on the cell phone.

Anonymous Coward says:

I can talk on my phone and drive, but I choose not to. Why? Because I’m driving. It’s a singular task, and unless I am expecting a really important call or need to give someone a 3 word answer and hang up, I just don’t use my phone. Hands free sets DO NOT fix the attention issue. They are simply pathetic, ignorant, attempts to legislate safety. Just because something isn’t in someones hand does not make them more focused. If you want to fix that, require more training before people can get their drivers license.

The key to talking while driving, or doing anything while driving really, is to be able to rapidly reprioritize. For example, just because you are talking to someone on the phone, it doesn’t mean that the phone call should take more significance mentally than the task of driving. If you get locked into having to spread your focus multiple directions without the ability to totally ignore the conversation on the phone in favor of immediate action, you can’t do both. The rare times I actually take a call while driving, the person on the other end thinks I am ignoring them… guess what, they are right. They have just enough attention from me to get directions how to proceed or to give me information I need, before I hang up.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I totally agree. I saw the Myth Busters do a show on the subject and they were all proud of themselves they proved that talking on the phone was dangerous. The way they ran the test, they forced attention from driving onto the call. Making it appear that talking on the phone is the problem, instead of splitting your attention.

Out here in Vegas we have countless billboards advertising strip clubs and the like. We even have them on the backs of cabs. Now tell me they’ll outlaw reading billboards along with mobile phones.

Phone Eater says:

Re: Re:

Yes! For goshsakes, a ringing phone DOES NOT REQUIRE ANSWERING! They’ve all got this thing called ‘voicemail’ these days, don’t they?

Is that why patrol car police, ambulance drivers, cabbies, and anyone else who has to maintain contact with a dispatcher aren’t pulled over for communicating while driving too?

Kids in the backseat are more of a distraction than lots of other things, but perhaps parents are more careful on the road for that reason?

JB says:

Re: Re:


It’s good to know there is somebody else out there like me. I have many times asked my wife to repeat something after I had to merge with traffic, swerve to miss a tire in the road or a horridly distracted driver, switch lanes or even just pulling up to a stop light/sign. Apparently, my ability to be a supertasker is really my ability to reprioritize on the fly.

JB says:


Finally I have a term for it. I’ve always been able to do many things at once while not reducing my concentration on either task. It drives my wife nuts when I change topics suddenly after a short conversation. I also am a driver that is extremely spacially aware of my surroundings.

The only two accidents I’ve ever had, in all my 13 years of driving, were when I was still in high school (first 3 years of driving). One was purely caused by my desire to drive fast and hard while ignoring the very wet pavement. The second was when I had three girls in the car and I was not paying attention to the heavy traffic and the fact that the truck in front of me had slammed on their brakes (only going about 10mph before a stop light). Each taught me a valuable lesson and luckily no one suffered from my misconduct; I even reseeded the guy’s yard in the first accident and nurtured the sapling that graciously stopped my car.

Now, even while talking on the phone, I am paying close attention to everything that others’ and my car are doing. I become greatly annoyed when people are not paying attention to the fact that they are sitting in a deadly weapon and they are for all intents and purposes playing Russian Roulette with other people’s lives.

I sometimes wonder if the drivers out there had the same material in driver’s ed. Everyone I know has always told me how great of a driver I am and prefer for me to drive; even when it’s their car.

I am not saying all this to justify or condemn the various distracted driving laws, however I feel that discretion should be applied in all cases where distracted driving, of any kind, may have been a factor. In my experience, there are no true ‘accidents,’ there is always someone who, through action or inaction, caused the wreck.

a-dub (profile) says:

I agree with comment #19. My daily commute is 60 miles one way. I see a lot of bad driving and it is almost always due to some jackleg with a phone stuck to his/her head. I didnt think much about cell phone driving until I began to notice that almost all of the swerving, drifting into another lane or onto the shoulder, and inconsistent speed is due to cell phone usage while driving. This is what I observe on a daily basis…car in front of me begins to drift from one side of the lane to the other, this indicates dialing a number or looking up a contact, then the car begins to slow down, this indicates the conversation is beginning to take more of the drivers attention and now I have to turn off my cruise control, then the car begins to speed up again once the call is over and the process starts over again. I see this happen multiple times a day and even with truckers. It has caused me to rethink the whole cell phone driving problem and now I completely avoid using my phone while driving. I am not so sure that passing laws to deal with this problem is the answer. I know many people that can multitask very well..pilots come to mind…but for Suzie homemaker and Joe the drywall guy…hang up the damn phone and drive bitches…

PRMan (profile) says:


Actually, it probably DOES apply to me, because I can listen to all the conversations in a room simultaneously and process all of them.

I can drive with my knees while eating and texting at the same time no problem. I can also hold a conversation on the phone or with another person, too.

But, all that said, I am still in favor of the handsfree law in California, because people on the phone (still!) drift over the lane marker and almost hit me all the time because they have one hand on the phone and are leaning. They can’t do it at all, and I don’t want them to hit me.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Is Driving 'Good Enough' Good Enough?

As for me, I think I might fit in with those of you here who figure you’re supertaskers. I’m pretty sure I can drive and talk on the phone very well. I still maintain my speed, never go out of my lane (bots dots in CA will let you know if you do), still signal, shoulder check, etc. But here’s where our arguments fall flat:

– supertaskers still have to dial and manipulate the phone. This task is far more demanding than a conversation, requiring eyes, hands, fingers. Some hands-free solutions solve this, but if you’re using your eyes and fingers to dial, that’s a big distraction.

– while I may be able to drive decently, and legally while on a call, I drive much less defensively. You see, as a veteran motorcycle driver, I have a habit of looking at every car as a predator, and me as a gazelle. Bikers usually do a lot of extra thinking about threats, escape routes, etc. Some good car drivers also do this. This means that not only can the defensive driver drive well, but they can avert an accident that would have been caused by another bad driver. In fact, the general safety of the road relies heavily on most drivers being able to avoid accidents that might have been caused by others. But when I’m on a phone call, this extra “safety buffer” is greatly reduced if not eliminated.

The good phone-driver may be able to keep themselves within the lane and within the law, but no matter what, they have reduced the margins of safety that prevent accidents. In aggregate, you can measure that in dollars, or in lives.

Anonymous Coward says:

Just proves...

… that there are exceptions to most things. Phoning while driving is like drinking and driving in many ways. Many people can’t do it safely, but some can. Some people, like say ones who suffer anxiety in traffic, may drive *better* after drinking because it relieves their anxiety so that they can concentrate better. Another example might be that of an alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink in a while: do you really want someone to be going through withdrawal and delirium tremens while driving? Such a person could probably also drive better after a drink.

Those are just a couple of examples off the top of my head. But they show that while phoning and driving may not always make people drive worse, drinking and driving may not either.

In the end, many of the same arguments that can be made against drunk driving can also be made against phone driving. So, in all fairness, they should be treated with the same seriousness. That they aren’t really demonstrates how hypocritical we are. Shame on us.

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