There was a time when it was nothing to park a cooler on the front seat between the driver and the passenger on a road trip and measure the journey by the number of empties. Now, driving under the influence of alcohol can land offenders in jail. It’s been shown that drivers using a cell phone are more impaired than DUI drivers, yet penalties – where they exist at all – are feeble. In January the Ergonomics Report™ asked two experts for a tour of the cell phoning-driver issue and why regulation is such a tough sell.
An insurance company survey estimated 73 percent of wireless users talk while driving. Another survey found that during any given daytime moment, 10 percent of US drivers are using cellular phones.
Recent research shows they are increasing the risks for themselves and everyone on the road – and slowing traffic. One of the interviewed experts, David Strayer, professor of psychology at the University of Utah, has led recent studies that found drivers talking on cell phones are as impaired as drivers with the 0.08 percent blood alcohol level that defines drunken driving in most states. His team’s recent research has also shown that hands-free cell phones are no less dangerous while driving than hand-held cell phones.
And Utah Highway statistics suggest drivers on cell phones are four times more likely to be in an accident, according to the university news release in January about the traffic study. Professor Strayer’s earlier research suggests the risk is 5.36 times greater.
This latest study found that motorists who talk on cell phones drive slower on the freeway, pass sluggish vehicles less often and take longer to complete their trips. It was produced in collaboration with Peter Martin, director of the University of Utah Traffic Lab and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. The other authors on the paper, which was presented in January at the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting, were researchers from the Psychology and Traffic labs.
The study made it clear that drivers using a phone congest traffic and are bad news at rush hour. Compared with undistracted motorists, drivers on cell phones drove an average of 2 mph slower and took 15 to 19 seconds longer to complete the 9.2 miles. That may not seem like much, the researchers explained, but is likely to be compounded if 10 percent of all drivers are talking on wireless phones at the same time.
"At the end of the day, the average person’s commute is longer because of that person who is on the cell phone right in front of them," Dr. Strayer said in the news release. "That SOB on the cell phone is slowing you down and making you late. … If you get two or three people gumming up the system, it starts to cascade and slows everybody’s commute."
In the April interview, Professor Martin offered what he described as "informed opinion" to explain why current regulation is misguided and why regulation in general is not easy to sell.
Some of the most vigorous resistance to regulation has come from critics who suggest cell phone driving shouldn’t be targeted because it is less risky than other common behavior behind the wheel, such as eating, applying makeup or dealing with misbehaving children. Countering that line of reasoning, Professor Martin said that by its nature, the distraction due to cell phones is a different risk. The makeup and naughty children are examples of distractions generated within the vehicle, he explained, whereas, the distraction associated with talking on a cell phone is the distraction associated with the natural need to communicate with somebody at the other end. "If I shut up for one and a half seconds, you come in and you say, ‘hello, hello, are you still there?’ So there is a compulsion associated with a cell phone that isn’t there with those other kinds of distractions."
He likened the compulsion to what happens if there is a brief break in a radio program: "You can’t have a two second pause on a radio. You go and fiddle with the dial." That compulsion makes you keep talking, he said, a demand that "competes with the driving effort."
Professor Martin’s explanation prompted a question about the risk, relative to cell phone driving, of fiddling with a radio while driving.
He replied that some of the most provocative remarks by arch-conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh could make a listening driver angry, but that there is no interaction with "whatever pushes your buttons.” So however powerful the stimulus, he added, "what makes cell phone conversations different is that there is somebody at the end. … It’s a phone and you have to keep feeding it with your voice."
Where legislation exists, it penalizes hand-held, not hands-free cell phone use. Professor Martin said the distinction misses the point entirely. "It’s not only the hand that is the distraction, … it is the compulsion part. So putting a piece of electronics in the ear doesn’t really do much. It takes away the fiddling with the fingers, which is one good thing, but the real distractive power is still there." The hands-free ruling is "a palliative, at best," he added.
The Cost vs. Benefits Argument
The study of the impact of cell phone use on traffic flow is important because it undermines a common argument used against regulation, Professor Strayer explained in the news release. "When people have tried to do cost-benefit analyses to decide whether we should regulate cell phones, they often don’t factor in the cost to society associated with increased commute times, excess fuel used by stop-and-go traffic and increased air pollution – as well as hazards associated with drivers distracted by cell phone conversations."
In the same news release, Professor Martin explained that transportation analysts include two components – accidents and delay – when they calculate the "user costs" associated with road travel. "A fatal accident could cost as much as $5 million when we take into account medical, property and loss-of-income costs," he said. "Delay is measured by a composite number representing a measure of the value of a typical American traveler’s time. Today, this number is about $13 per hour. While the costs associated with accidents seem high, there are so very few of them, comparatively, they actually are dwarfed by the user costs associated with delay. If we compile the millions of drivers distracted by cell phones and their small delays, and convert them to dollars, the costs are likely to be dramatic. Cell phones cost us dearly."
Ford Motor Co., for one, apparently isn’t paying attention to the findings about the risks and direct and indirect costs of driver distractions. In the April interview, Professor Martin pointed that the new little Ford Fiesta targeted to the younger market is "Bluetooth-enabled and it has a degree of sophistication that would be envied in a Lincoln or one of those great big SUVs." He said Ford is wiring the Fiesta electronically so that it will take iPods and iPhones and GPS. "It’s being marketed as a cool, youthful switched-on electronic vehicle. … "Here you see Ford going almost to the basement of its model range, and it’s putting all its connectivity in there."
Where are the Curbs on This Risky Behavior?
An aversion in some quarters to "government interference, government control, manipulation, regulation" could explain the apparent reluctance to curb cell phone use behind the wheel, according to Professor Martin.
The other reason I would offer, he said, "is that the cell phone phenomenon is quite new. If you watch a movie and rent a DVD now that is over 10 years old, you’ll see people going to pay phones. That’s just so dated. So the technology has hit us very, very quickly." The number of phones that are being sold is overwhelming, he added, and government is always slow to catch up to changes.
He sees one example in the lag before public policy caught up with findings about cigarettes. The association between smoking and lung cancer came out in the 60s, he explained, but it took 20 years for social attitudes to turn full force against the practice. "It’s now beginning to be seen as a wholly anti-social thing. So people and politics take time to catch up to science."
Professor Martin sees the immensity and power of the telecommunication lobby as another reason for legislative inertia. "If you legislate against the use of these phones in vehicles, then that hits the bottom line of telecommunications companies. It affects the number of minutes that are sold. It affects the usefulness of the device. So they will resist to the death any hint of legislation."
Professor Strayer finds other forces at work to keep regulation at bay. It partly comes down to a kind of a false intuition," he explained, "[but] what is intuitive isn’t always right. For example, it’s intuitive to many of lawmakers that a hands-free cell phone is safer than a hand-held cell phone. That’s just not supported by any scientific evidence. So part of it is … people have intuitions that are wrong. Or they’ll say, ‘You know, if I legislate against cell phones, then I’ll have to legislate against a lot of other things, like talking to a passenger. It turns out that talking to a passenger is nowhere near as distracting, so if they would actually inform themselves of the scientific literature, they would see that cell phones are in fact a much greater hazard than, say, talking to a passenger or other things."
He acknowledged there are activities that are even riskier and pointed out that text messaging is significantly worse than talking on the telephone.
"I think that a lot of times, the legislators do an implicit or sometimes explicit cost-benefit analysis, where they say, ‘we understand that talking of a cell phone leads to certain levels of risk, and there’ll be certain level of fatality associated with that and it is very unfortunate. But by the same token, when people are using their cell phone it is generating a lot of revenue and making the country more productive.’"
The one thing we’ve been doing, he said, is trying to actually take apart that cost-benefit analysis equation. "Implicitly, the assumption is that if you stop people from using their cell phone, it will prohibit that business deal from taking place. It turns out that if it is a really important business deal, you are probably going to call later on if you couldn’t do it while you were in the vehicle." He observed that if you start factoring in other kinds of costs – 10 percent of everybody’s commute during rush hour is caused by use of cell phones – that turns out to be a very substantial number of man hours.
Duelling Lobbies – An Alternative Curb?
Though effective legislation is wanting, cell phone-using drivers could yet become a threatened species. Professor Strayer said many companies "are starting to have fairly rigorous policies, vis a vis use of cell phones while driving, at least during company time, and that is largely because they have been hit with product liability suits." He said he has worked on some 15 cases over the last two years "where you have some employee who is using a cell phone to do work for a company, they get involved in an accident, they may hit or kill somebody, and then they expose the company to punitive damages." He has seen awards of seven figures.
He sees the potential for curbs from developments like these rather than laws. “I don’t think the United States will lead with regulations,” he said. "I think it is going to be more of a social pressure from things comparable to what happened with mothers against drunk drivers, and also maybe follow through with the insurance industry." He explained that the insurance companies are starting to keep track of the issue also because it is a substantial impairment and it cuts into their bottom line. "One of the groups that has done research is the Insurance Industry for Highway Safety … so the insurance industry is well aware to what the costs are to their bottom line."
It may be that education and regulation are … not sufficient to change public policy, Professor Strayer said. He noted that it is no longer accepted when somebody "drinking like crazy" gets into their car. "I was at a National Safety Council meeting where they are trying to deal with distracted driving, and they said, "Until it [the use of cell phones or other distractions] becomes stigmatized to the level that drunk driving has, those laws are not going to have much traction."
Sources: University of Utah; Professor David Strayer; Professor Peter Martin
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2008-04-16.