Keith Keith Humphreys says he not only doesn’t use his cell phone when driving (CWD), but doesn’t talk to people when they are driving. Good for Keith, and the National Transportation Safety Board, which has recommended a flat ban on using cell phones while driving, hands-free or not. Columnist Debra Saunders, weighs in with one of her typically muddled attempts to turn conservatism into less government across the board, mixes up what’s really dangerous about driving while on the phone, and confuses “not CWD” with “outlawing CWD”. She did get me to find the Highway Loss Data Institute study from two years ago that found an accident reduction effect in states that outlawed CWD but with low statistical significance, a result she upends into “[the study] found hands-free laws did not reduce the number of car crashes in California, New York, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut.”

This is actually quite an interesting issue with superficially counterintuitive facts. It’s not especially dangerous for a driver to chat with a passenger in a car, or to listen to the radio, or even to eat a sandwich with one hand (OK, maybe a slippery drooling Carl’s Jr. premium burger). It’s obviously dangerous to be looking at a cellphone and texting or even dialing it (why do we still say dial such a device, and why is a circle with ten circles inscribed in it still an ideogram for a phone? but I digress) but dialing a handheld phone only takes a short time compared to the conversation, so it can’t be too important overall.

Indeed, the danger comes from the conversation, and a hands-free phone makes almost no difference. The distraction of a phone for a driver is in fact the same as the distraction from a pet or a child who demands attention without knowing what’s happening on the road, and importantly, (i) who you know doesn’t know what you’re attending to but (ii) has a strong subconscious claim on your attention whether by affection or courtesy or both. An adult in the car can see out the windshield and understand the situation, and you know he can, so you don’t need to explain a sudden silence while you plan to steer around the mattress in your lane. The radio’s feelings won’t be hurt if you stop paying attention for a minute. But your conversational phone partner has none of the subconscious cues needed to let you comfortably, and instantly, tune into traffic exigencies. So, handsfree CWD is as bad as handheld, or very close. It’s not science, but I feel distinctly impaired using a handsfree phone behind the wheel and will pull off the road if I have to be on the phone. Conjecture: handsfree (voice recognition) outgoing texting is actually not dangerous, indeed I occasionally dictate correspondence in a car and don’t feel a bit impaired. Maybe even incoming texts and emails if they’re delivered by synthesized voice? Could video skyping from the car be OK if the camera points through the windshield?

The press release for the HLDI study points out reasons why (i) outlawing (ii) handheld CWD didn’t make much difference. First, laws are not always enforced or obeyed. Second, these laws probably just drove people to use handsfree devices, especially as their distinction between handheld and handsfree implicitly gave approval to the latter. If we get this right, and try to put a stop to all cellphone use in cars, the enforcement problem for handsfree phones is quite daunting. I’m not sure we want the highway patrol trying to make out whether a driver alone in a car is talking while both vehicles are whizzing along. I suppose the phone company could note phone use while the user is switching towers faster than walking speed, but that would pick up passengers using their phones, and jamming calls while the engine is running is a non-starter for several reasons (I think making a 911 call to report an accident or a drunk driver is just fine, dialing and all).

In the end, the law as NTSB proposes it is probably an important action certifying society’s judgment about the behavior, but actually reducing it depends on public education and social pressure of the kind Keith nicely applies to his friends. Friends don’t let friends drive distracted, or friends don’t distract friends while they’re driving; that sort of thing.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O'Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.