August 16, 2006

It's driving and talking on a cell phone that's dangerous.

Holding the phone while you use it is not the problem, according to a study by psychprof David Strayer. This doesn't surprise me. Talking on the phone takes the visual part of your brain into the world of imagination.

Just the other day, I was talking to one of my colleagues about this as we were watching Bloggingheads -- which, you know, I was on. You're hearing the other person over a phone line and not seeing him, but you want the expression on your face to look like you're seeing him. It's somewhat hard to do, because the natural tendency is to have "phone face" (a term I'm making up). You're eyes are open but they've gone rather blind, because the brain connection to the eyes is not there. The brain's visual center is working in the imagination mode, summoning up images of things that aren't coming in through the eyes. That's how I'm explaining it to myself at least.

I think when you talk on the phone, you are generating a temporary blindness. It affects the way you look on Bloggingheads, and you need to do a little acting to disguise it. Of course, to do that is to use even more imagination, not to turn your eyes back on. When you're driving, we mostly don't care how you look, but you really do need to see. How are you going to keep your brain from disconnecting with your eyes?

Speaking of Bloggingheads, by the way, Bob Wright and Mickey Kaus talk about me in the beginning of the new episode (which also has other good stuff in it). The part about me starts at 2:23. Referring to my Bloggingheads performance, Bob says, "She was very civil. I mean, maybe she has a latent combative side that could be brought out by a sufficiently provocative interlocutor." He says he's "hoping to provoke an ill-advised outburst" from me on the show, and Mickey's response to that is "But she's blonde." Is he trying to provoke me?

20 comments:

Abraham said...

I think you're on to something there. Not being able to actually see someone eliminates an huge "spectrum" of "interpersonal communication bandwidth" that humans use to talk to each other, leaving only the words, which means you have to concentrate extra hard to discern the entire meaning from a fraction of the communication. This leaves less concentration for the task of driving. I think the other factor that comes into play is the apparent need to not have "dead air" on the phone. When talking to a person in the passenger seat, nobody cares if you go a few seconds or a few minuets - occasionally hours - without talking. But for some reason on the phone, pauses of more than a second or two are very uncomfortable - and this is complicated by that half-second or so of delay most cell phones have. So you have to actually think very hard to be able to understand the person's meaning well enough to respond, and respond quickly.

Bruce Hayden said...

Just imagine the problems we would face if we could see who we were talking with, while driving. If trying to visualize them is distracting, actually doing so, and following all of their non-verbal cues, etc., would be a sure recipe for roadway mayham.

Pogo said...

Amazing how we've been able to survive talking to passengers all this time.

Soon, we will have convinced ourselves to ban talking or eating in a car, being tired, having had any alcohol at all within 24 hours of driving, being old, having arthritis, heart disease, neuropathy, incontinence, or diabetes, being angry or upset, or being anything but positively robotic when driving. Oh, and no smoking!

Eliminate humans. Problem solved.

Simon said...

"Bob says, 'She was very civil. I mean, maybe she has a latent combative side that could be brought out by a sufficiently provocative interlocutor.'"

Well, we already knew that much. Consider your appearence on Wisconsin Public Radio talking about Barrett last month.

Simon said...

By the way, I have to add: Ann, you missed a golden opportunity at the end of the BloggingHeads thing. When you were explaining that you can't talk about the engineering and physics questions involved in the WTC collapse, and that you're not qualified to do so, you missed the opportunity to put the obvious full stop on that train of thought that would drive the point home: no, you're not qualified to talk about materials science and civil engineering or the tensile strength of steel -- and neither is Kevin Barrett.

Jeff said...

I think it is because we have become such poor drivers that adding another task to go along with the main task (one that is barely being paid attention to as it is) is just too much. Everytime someone in gov discusses banning using a cell phone while driving a car, someone will step up to the mike and say something like "I was using my cell phone and nearly ran over a handicaped person, barely missed a school bus of nuns and almost ran over a campground of boyscouts. This needs to be banned". Perhaps instead, that person needs to stop driving.

SteveWe said...

I often see that while drivers are using cell phones, their eyes are looking upwards at the sun visor or headliner. This story confirms my thoughts that phone users are imagining (dreaming) during their conversation and are largely oblivious to what is in front of their automobile. Check it out; I think you'll see that this is indeed true.

dearieme said...

These arguments were all gone through in Britain a few years ago: the conclusion there was also that it is the conversation that matters, not holding the phone. But it was the latter that was made illegal, since the other wasn't policeable. Mind you, lots of people ignore the prohibition - to the extent that there's been a recent case of vigilate attacks on the cars of people who use their mobiles while driving.

mcg said...

Well, then it stands to reason that talking to someone in the back seat of a car is equally dangerous. Are we going to ban that as well? Permit conversations only with people in the front passenger seat, and then only if you promise not to turn your head away from the road too much?

Oh wait, if you don't turn your head, then you're not getting the visual cues, and that's dangerous. So you'd better turn your head some, but not too much. I think more studies are required here.

Let's get to the bottom of this, because it's very important that we do this, because driving ought to be a 100% safe enterprise.

Ann Althouse said...

Simon: It was implicit. That’s kind of why you thought it.

MCG: The linked study refutes that.

mcg said...

Ann, the article does say that a conversation with an adult passenger does not have the same impact, because the adult has an interest in the driver's safe behavior and can stop talking as needed.

But frankly, that's pretty vague. Is he saying it has no impact or less? Furthermore, what about children who don't appreciate the safety aspects? And again, what about backseat talkers versus frontseat talkers?

Tom said...

I suspect the blonde comment was not to get a rise out of you, but a reference to Ann Coulter. Mickey has a continuing thing going of poking Bob about her.

Chris said...

I've read some of this research in the psych journals. One of the differences between a conversation on the phone and one with a passenger is that the passenger can see what is going on in front of you and moderates their conversation accordingly. The phone conversant doesn't.

A passenger can stop talking and temporarily reduce the attention drain at intersections, while a person on a phone has no idea. Big difference.

mcg said...

Right, that's the impression I get from the article. But of course, that's not always true, now is it? For example, what about children, who don't have a full appreciation of driving and the safety issues thereof? What about a person in the backseat who doesn't have as good a view of the road? What about someone who has simply been caught up in the conversation; who, because they are not in fact driving, simply are not attuned to the needs of the driver?

If it sounds like I'm being argumentative on purpose... guilty as charged. I guess what I'm saying is that there is a certain degree of arbitrariness here. If it turns out that, due to the factors you state and others, that a conversation with a passenger in the car has no bearing on safety, then so be it. But if instead it turns out that it has some impact (which it most likely does), do we start a campaign to get people to quit talking in the car?

Remember, when we talk about driving we're not talking about an enterprise that is 100% safe but for a small number of easily identifiable factors like alcohol or cel phones. We're talking about an enterprise which is inherently risky, period; and we've chosen to balance that risk against its benefit to society, and smooth out the difference with mandatory insurance.

I do wonder, then, if we really have the political willpower to ban all cel phone conversations in cars---and not just because it's darn near unenforceable. We can ban handheld phones, and even earpieces, certainly, because that is visually verifiable, but hands-free car kits change the equation.

XWL said...

Given that occupants within the same car seem to be able to have conversations with relative safety, a 'simple' solution.

Attach a camera to the front of the vehicle and then send that video along with the voice data to the party on the other line, that way the person on the other end of the call can react to traffic patterns and potential dangers just the way passengers do.

My other 'simple' solution would be to eliminate automatic transmissions and power steering. When driving was a real physical activity, folks attention didn't stray. Drivers were constantly engaged in driving.

With the advent of all these technologies, too many folks mistake their cars for moving living rooms.

People drive distractedly because driving seems far too easy.

Simon said...

Ann Althouse said...
"Simon: It was implicit. That’s kind of why you thought it."

Actually, I thought it because I'd already commented about that point two weeks ago ("Barrett may or may not be qualified to teach about Islam, but what - if anything - qualifies him to discuss structural engineering, materials science and physics?"). ;) As to it being implicit, that may be, but we are not dealing with rational people here. If they were smart enough to recognize your taking of the high road, on the principal that people rarely choose to wallow in the lies and mud of the low road, they'd probably join you on the high road, n'est ce pas?

El Mas Chingón said...

Tell me about it. On my way to work yesterday, some idiot was driving 5 mph too slow and swerved into my lane as I passed him because he was too busy talking on his cell phone.

I don't think it has anything to do with whether or not you use an earpiece or handsfree kit. Some people just can't drive and talk at the same time.

dick said...

Many people are quite capable of driving and talking at the same time. However, as I live in NYC and walk most places I go I get to see a lot of people talking on the phone and driving. I see them looking into their briefcases to get papers to talk to the caller. I see them waving one hand around and holding the phone with the other and going down a busy street like Queens Blvd, which has been called the Highway of Death here in NYC, and they seem totally oblivious to anyone around them. I see them drinking their coffee and eating a donut and talking on the phone in rush hour traffic bumbper to bumper and switching lanes like a cab driver.

Before I retired I worked at a major bank where if you worked after 8 PM they sent you home in limos. I have had limo drivers who made it from Wall Street at the lower tip of Manhattan up past the George Washington Bridge in les than 20 minutes and talking on the phone the whole time arguing with their wives.

I have seen people use the phones where they seemed to check for messages about every 2 minutes, taking their eyes off the road to read the message and number on the screen.

They scare me to death. I have gotten in the habit of checking the drivers in the cars before I step in front of them at the lights to make sure they see that there are people crossing the street. I do this because I almost got hit by a woman who claimed her foot slipped off the pedal. She was carrying on an "Italian" conversation on the cell phone and didn't seem to see anything around her.

What gets me is how many of these conversations are even remotely necessary or even beneficial at all. It is one thing to use the cell to check appointments and give messages that you will be late or get messages to stop for some item. Many of these people can't seem to sit behind the wheel without either talking on the phone or messing with the CD player.

dick said...

Many people are quite capable of driving and talking at the same time. However, as I live in NYC and walk most places I go I get to see a lot of people talking on the phone and driving. I see them looking into their briefcases to get papers to talk to the caller. I see them waving one hand around and holding the phone with the other and going down a busy street like Queens Blvd, which has been called the Highway of Death here in NYC, and they seem totally oblivious to anyone around them. I see them drinking their coffee and eating a donut and talking on the phone in rush hour traffic bumbper to bumper and switching lanes like a cab driver.

Before I retired I worked at a major bank where if you worked after 8 PM they sent you home in limos. I have had limo drivers who made it from Wall Street at the lower tip of Manhattan up past the George Washington Bridge in les than 20 minutes and talking on the phone the whole time arguing with their wives.

I have seen people use the phones where they seemed to check for messages about every 2 minutes, taking their eyes off the road to read the message and number on the screen.

They scare me to death. I have gotten in the habit of checking the drivers in the cars before I step in front of them at the lights to make sure they see that there are people crossing the street. I do this because I almost got hit by a woman who claimed her foot slipped off the pedal. She was carrying on an "Italian" conversation on the cell phone and didn't seem to see anything around her.

What gets me is how many of these conversations are even remotely necessary or even beneficial at all. It is one thing to use the cell to check appointments and give messages that you will be late or get messages to stop for some item. Many of these people can't seem to sit behind the wheel without either talking on the phone or messing with the CD player whether they are driving or sitting in traffic.

dick said...

Sorry for the double posting. It came back and asked me to enter the code word again.