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Chatting on cell while driving (hands-free or not) courts trouble

Dear family members and friends:

Don’t bother to call me while you’re driving — even if you’re using that fancy new hands-free device of yours. I’m no longer accepting those calls.

I’d rather wait until later to talk to you — when you’ve reached your destination (or pulled over to the side of the road). That’s a lot less inconvenient than having to visit you in the hospital after you’ve crashed your car, distracted by our phone conversation.

It’s also a lot less inconvenient than spending hours, days, months and probably years consoling you for the anguish I know you’d feel for causing injury — or worse — to someone else.

And don’t tell me how you, unlike all those other crazy drivers on the road, are able to multitask while behind the wheel. That argument just won’t fly anymore.

As New York Times reporter Matt Richtel reported on Sunday:

Extensive research shows the dangers of distracted driving. Studies say that drivers using phones are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers, and the likelihood that they will crash is equal to that of someone with a .08 percent blood alcohol level, the point at which drivers are generally considered intoxicated. Research also shows that hands-free devices do not eliminate the risks, and may worsen them by suggesting that the behavior is safe.
A 2003 Harvard study estimated that cellphone distractions caused 2,600 traffic deaths every year, and 330,000 accidents that result in moderate or severe injuries.
Yet Americans have largely ignored that research. Instead, they increasingly use phones, navigation devices and even laptops to turn their cars into mobile offices, chat rooms and entertainment centers, making roads more dangerous.
A disconnect between perception and reality worsens the problem. New studies show that drivers overestimate their own ability to safely multitask, even as they worry about the dangers of others doing it.

Sound familiar? Of course, you might be forgiven for not having (until now) all the facts about the dangers of using the phone while driving. As the New York Times reported in another article on Tuesday:

In 2003, researchers at a federal agency proposed a long-term study of 10,000 drivers to assess the safety risk posed by cellphone use behind the wheel.
They sought the study based on evidence that such multitasking was a serious and growing threat on America’s roadways.
But such an ambitious study never happened. And the researchers’ agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA], decided not to make public hundreds of pages of research and warning about the use of phone by drivers.

Why?  Apparently, because some NHTSA officials were worried about angering Congress, who themselves, according to the Times, didn’t want to anger “voters who multitask while driving and, to a much smaller degree, the cellphone industry.”

Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen, you can now read those sobering documents.

I’m sure doing so will persuade you to turn your phone on mute while behind the wheel. But in case it doesn’t, I’ll remind you again: Don’t bother calling me while you’re driving. I want you to concentrate on the road ahead of you — so we’ll be sure to have years of wonderful, joyous conversation ahead of us.

Talk to you soon …

Affectionately,

Susan

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Dan Haugen on 07/22/2009 - 10:33 am.

    Hi Susan — Have you seen any research that compares hands-free cell phone use to having a conversation with somebody in the passenger seat? I suspect the hands-free cell phone use is more distracting, but haven’t seen anything to directly support my hunch.

  2. Submitted by Ed Stych on 07/22/2009 - 11:35 am.

    Drivers talking on cells is my BIGGEST pet peeve!

    There are other distractions: Playing with the radio, eating a burger, talking to a passenger … but drivers talking on their cells is the worst.

    And the number of crashes would be a LOT higher if not for all of us forced to drive even MORE defensively because of the cell phone users.

    And, no, I’m not perfect. I’ve done some stupid things while driving. The worst is trying to find an XM station. I’ve got to figure out a better way to do that. And I have talked on my cell a couple of times, but that has only reinforced my belief that it’s dangerous.

  3. Submitted by Susan Perry on 07/22/2009 - 11:58 am.

    Dan:

    The Sunday NY Times piece says:

    Research also shows that drivers conversing with fellow passengers do not present the same danger, because adult riders help keep drivers alert and point out dangerous conditions and tend to talk less in heavy traffic or hazardous weather.

    I’m not personally familiar with that research, however.

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