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U of M professor suggests talking on cell phone while driving may be hazardous to your … relationships

That’s the provocative proposition that Paul Rosenblatt, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s department of family social services, makes this week in the journal Family Science Review.

All sorts of studies have demonstrated that driving while talking on a cell phone (yes, even a hands-free one) is hazardous to your health. You’re more likely to act like a drunk driver — running red lights, speeding, straying out of your lane. In fact, your risk of getting in an accident quadruples.

If, despite all the evidence, you still insist on talking on a phone while driving (and, sadly, 67 percent of Americans do), maybe this will get you to turn the darn thing off: 

Using a cell phone while driving may also be putting your relationships in jeopardy.

That’s the provocative proposition that Paul Rosenblatt, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s department of family social services, makes in a theoretical analysis [PDF] of the issue that he and U of M graduate student Xiaohui Li published this week in the journal Family Science Review.

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“There are all these safety reasons for not talking on a cell phone while driving, but I also think there are relationship reasons,” Rosenblatt told me in a phone interview Wednesday.

Often the problems are minor, he said. Your spouse or partner may become irritated with you for missing the specifics of a conversation — say, the grocery items that you were asked to pick up on the way home from work.

“But I also think that some relationships — those that are already in trouble and on the edge — are really vulnerable to communications that fail,” he added.

That communications failure might be an apology that is misinterpreted.“Someone may be trying to explain themselves to a partner, and they just can’t pull it off while they’re driving,” said Rosenblatt. “I can imagine that, some of the time, that miscommunication becomes the last straw.”

As Rosenblatt explains in his paper, talking on a cell phone while driving is different from talking to a passenger while driving: “A passenger may know when the driver is in a demanding situation and become silent until the driving becomes easier again or even be in a position to warn the driver of hazards, but a conversation partner on the cell phone will not know that there are immediate hazards and cannot adjust her or his interactions appropriately.”

Divided attention
It’s easy to have a communication breakdown when you combine a cell phone with driving. First, your ability to react —  to what’s being said as well as to what’s happening on the road — slows down (yes, even if you’re not aware of it). The person on the other end of the conversation may interpret your delayed verbal reaction as ambivalence or maybe even as an attempt to hide something, said Rosenblatt.

Although distraction and divided attention are major impediments to having a good conversation while driving, they’re not the only ones. Phone conversations are inherently wrought with the potential for misunderstanding.

“You don’t have the visual cues [gestures, facial expressions and other “body language”] when you’re talking on the phone,” said Rosenblatt. “And there are some people who are just not comfortable while talking on the phone. They’re not themselves, or are just not at their best.”

Phone conversations require attention to aural cues — attention that’s a problem for distracted drivers.

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Then there’s the issue of poor cell-phone reception, which, coupled with the noise of the car and surrounding traffic, makes misunderstandings even more likely for drivers and their phone partners, said Rosenblatt.

 “There is a paradox with cell phone usage,” he concludes in his paper. “Many people use cell phones to be closer and more in contact with family members. … And yet when cell phone usage is combined with driving, the results might be negative for relationships. One might be more often in contact with important others, but the quality of the contact may be poor, particularly when driving is combined with an activity like driving that requires full attention. Perhaps that is one reason why cell phone use is associated with increased family distress and lower levels of family satisfaction.”

Asking for anecdotes
In his paper, Rosenblatt presents hypothetical examples of potential relationship problems that can result from talking on the phone while driving. Those include situations in which the driver is 1) asked to run an errand, 2) told good news, 3) told bad news, 4) involved in an argument, and 5) involved in an attempt to apologize. Each scenario illustrates how the driver’s distraction might lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, anger and, potentially, greater conflicts.

Right now, these scenarios — and the entire hypothesis that talking on a cell phone while driving can be hazardous to relationships — “is only speculative,” said Rosenblatt. “I don’t have the anecdotes, let alone the research.”

But he’s looking for the anecdotes. If you’ve had a relationship that hit a bump — or worse — as the result of a cell phone conversation that took place while you or the person at the other end of the conversation was driving, Rosenblatt would like to hear from you, either by e-mail (prosenbl@umn.edu) or, if you prefer, by phone (612-625-3120).

One thing: Don’t call him while you’re driving.