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This is a bit cynical, but I think the only reason we have reasonably tight DUI laws and enforcement is our underlying puritanism about alcohol and the fact that the laws were put in place before populist individualism and commercial money ruled legislatures. I view distracted driving just as seriously, but as a substantially lost cause for the foreseeable future. Ride safe, all.

I think he traffic engineers' efforts to limit curb cuts/intersections and smooth out automobile travel paths allows people to feel they can divert some of their attention to other things, like cellphones. A bit of random chaos forces full attention.

People won't change as long as we view traffic crashes and fatalities as "oops" and at most a few hundred dollar fine.

I am not sure I agree that we have reasonable tight DUI laws. Most first time offenders in MD are given PBJ and serve no time. Case in point is the Bishop who killed Mr. Palermo in Baltimore last December. Her first offense (2010?), she had a BAC of 0.27, had vomit all over her clothes, and the officer was forced to stop the field test for fear she would injure herself. The only time she served was while waiting for someone to come get her after her arrest. Perhaps if the consequences were serious after the first offense, there would be fewer second offenses.

I do agree that serious penalties for driving while using a phone is a lost cause. Of course if we were serious, cars would be manufactured with technology that would not allow cell phone use while the car is in motion.

The latest "it can wait" AT&T video (see link) is mandatory viewing more my teenage children.


The US DUI laws are a joke compared to what you get in other countries.

Probably just me, but I'm sure I'm more of a danger trying to use my (new) "hands-free" bluetooth than I would be just answering the cell phone.

Interesting that we tend to view the problem as an issue of using our hands rather than the cognitive distraction caused by using or talking on a phone while driving, as if there should be a law against driving with one hand.

Kolo, a recent study of drivers done by the NHTSA showed that talking on the phone hands-free was no more dangerous than not. But anytime someone performed a visual or manual (VM) operation with their phone, danger went up considerably. And before anyone thinks that that gives hands-free a green light, they also found that no one who talks on a hands free device does so without occassionally doing VM things on it (like looking for the phone or dialing it). So the cognitive distraction, while real, doesn't seem to be an issue.

Part of my problem with my hands-free phone is I don't know the buttons on the wheel well enough to not look at them, thereby taking my eyes off the road, which seems to me the biggest problem. The buttons all look the same, and my near vision isn't what it used to be. Perhaps once I'm more used to it.

I actually think our DUI laws are driven by financial interests and less about safety. Hence why we don't mandate breathalyzers in every car despite having the technology. Local jurisdictions reap huge rewards for busting people. It's also part of why they chase after people between .04 and .08--the reason .08 is the law is because that's where studies indicate the average person suffers from noticeable impairments (meaning some could a little higher or a little lower with or without effect).

Anyway, that's sort of a digression. My worry on distracted driving as I've said before is that we're too caught up in it being cell phones. The issue has more to do with the distraction than the device.

I've been in cars with people who hate text-and-drivers (for various reasons, including family members hurt by them), yet who I observe eating or fiddling with other items in the car. It's as if the concept of the distraction as the problem sailed right past them and they got stuck on only the tool.

a recent study of drivers done by the NHTSA showed that talking on the phone hands-free was no more dangerous than not

The understanding of how our brains process data especially in distracting environments may still be incomplete. I've heard of studies showing the opposite.

A few years ago Diane Rehm had a neurologist on her show discussing this subject. He explained that our eyes "see nothing". They are just conduits of information to a region in the brain that then processes this information into vision.

He also said that when we become engaged in a conversation that our brain begins to visualize aspects of it.

For example, say your girl friend calls you up and begins describing a dress she has just bought. It's color, shape, etc. Your brain will begin to picture the dress as she describes it. The problem is that the region of your brain visualizing the dress is the same region that has to process information coming from your eyes.

Your brain can not multitask. So it has to serially switch from "seeing" the world around it to "visualizing" the abstract that is being described to you.

So maybe not every conversation is distracting or maybe not as distracting. But some conversations may be so engaging that your brain becomes focused on visualizing it and you become, in effect, blind to the world right in front of you!

Food for thought:





If a phone call (while driving) is trivial enough to require little or no cognitive distraction, why is the conversation necessary? I sometimes think that my life is far less important than most other people's lives, because I have NEVER had a reason to use a phone while operating a motor vehicle.

"yet who I observe eating or fiddling with other items in the car. It's as if the concept of the distraction as the problem sailed right past them and they got stuck on only the tool."

I agree. Drivers should not be eating, drinking, reading, etc, while driving. Operating a motor vehicle requires 100% a person's concentration. But I will still posit that using a cell phone is much more dangerous.

Reading a book takes concentration. Can a person drink his morning coffee while reading the morning paper? Certainly. Can you carry on an important phone conversation and still read (and comprehend) an important and unrelated news story or the latest David Mcullough epic (The Wright Brothers, highly recommend)? Doubtful. Most people put the paper away until the call is completed. Reading a newspaper is trivial compared to operating a 1-2 ton machine capable of killing in an instant, yet people think nothing of doing so while talking on a phone. Really?

"Hands-free devices offer no
safety benefit when driving.
Hands-free devices do not
eliminate cognitive distraction."

From: http://www.nsc.org/DistractedDrivingDocuments/Cognitive-Distraction-White-Paper.pdf

Here's the link to the NHTSA study. It's pretty robust. They recorded people as they drove, keeping track of "incidents" and what they were doing at the time.


Some of the studies the NSC cites are from a simulator (unlike the NHTSA study) or from prior to hands free devices (1995) or probably unable to separate the talking from the hands-on part of hands-free talking. There is an argument for banning all cell phone use by drivers, I just want mine to be based in science.

Recently read 'A Deadly Wandering', excellent book on this topic. http://www.harpercollins.com/9780062284068/a-deadly-wandering

As a neurologist and cognitive scientist I echo the fact that it's all about brain resources, not what the hands are doing. The automotive and telecom industries and legislatures have not admitted this, to my knowledge, and are hiding behind the myth that hands free devices and cockpit ergonomics mitigate risk instead of making distracting activities easier to do. I take the points above about alcohol, but at least there's an acceptance on all sides that it actually impairs judgment (by far the most important factor) and skill. Liability, if not punishment, is routinely assigned to vehicle operators, tavern owners, and even party hosts. I see no such admission for intentional distractions, which continue to multiply insidiously. I suspect it's going to take big, big payouts before anything begins to change and I'm sure the auto makers and telecoms are lawyering up, lathering legislators, and laying away cash against the event.

I once did Spanish language taped lessons. I could do them while dog-walking, but not while driving.

We don't allow bus drivers to make calls while driving. Nor train operators. I don't want a pilot ordering pizza while on final approach.

Being hit from behind, once considered rare, is now a common cause of car-on-bicycle fatalities.

I've changed my riding style. When I come up on an intersection where I need to make a left but, from past experience, I know that I'll likely have to wait for oncoming traffic to clear rather than sit unprotected in the lane I do a box turn from the right.

The fundamental problem is that we allow drivers to make all sorts of fatal errors.

I listened to Ulysses while commuting to work by car (back in the kid to school on the way days, alright? Jeez!) I remember something about kidneys.

Twice yesterday I experienced the (sadly familiar) phenomenon of being overtaken by a speeding car racing my bike to a red light.

Both times, I looked at the driver to see that she was texting and not looking at the road at all.

Being hit from behind, once considered rare, is now a common cause of car-on-bicycle fatalities.

Is there any evidence supporting an increase in this type of car-on-bike crash? It seems counterintuitive to me. From my anecdotal observations, distracted drivers seem to have tunnel vision. As in, they almost always see people who are in their lane, but are completely oblivious to anyone in adjacent lanes, pedestrians, etc. So I would expect all the other types of car-on-bike fatalities to increase more than the hit-from-behind case.

@SJE People won't change as long as we view traffic crashes and fatalities as "oops" and at most a few hundred dollar fine.

This. Took forever to realize that drinking and driving was a bad thing. Unfortunately,distractions aren't just behind the wheel. I see people on a daily basis doing from dumb to dangerous things because they've got their nose in their phone. It's going to take a full on paradigm shift to get people to pay attention when driving. Oprah couldn't even do it.

@jeffb,that's how I do my lefts as well. I've seen too many stupid left turns in this area to trust hanging out unprotected in the middle of the street.


From personal observation I think you're right about the tunneling vision.

The danger comes about because the driver is spending so little time observing ANY view outside the car and is only making occasional glances up to keep in lane.

The silhouette of a person stopped in the road ahead is harder to recognize with just a glance than 6 - 8 feet of car width and bright red stop lights.

Sorry to be away from the conversation (I was far from home, being cognitively distracted by family). Thanks for great comments.

Based on what I've read and some of the comments, I have revised my view of the effect of talking on the phone. As Mr Washcycle notes, this has been found to be less distracting than looking at the phone (visual distraction) or arguing with a voice-recognition system (cognitive distraction).

I used to think that, if you are using your visual cortex to visualize the person on the other end of the phone, as jeffb notes, you are not seeing the road in front of you. I still believe this is the case.

A useful insight comes from commenter Kolo Jezdec: "If a phone call (while driving) is trivial enough to require little or no cognitive distraction, why is the conversation necessary?"

Most of us have heard more than our share of one-sided cell-phone conversations while in public. At the risk of being insulting, many of these sound to me like so many streams of trivial gossip.

My conclusion: talking on a cell phone does not register as dangerous in studies because many (most?) phone conversations do not require cognitive resources.

So, all you phone people out there in internet-land: please dial your phone before taking your foot off the brake and have a great time driving and yakking it up. Just please reserve your brain for driving. Thanks.

Bill, I had a driver pull out in front of me when I had the right of way, after the driver in front of him had done the same. I was able to stop and avoid hitting him, but yelled "Hey! Hey! Heads up!" He never turned his head to look in my direction. He never heard or saw me, though at that point I was basically a wheel length away. In his left hand he held his phone in front of his mouth in that "speaker-phone" way people do. Sigh.

My theory about why talking hands-free is no more dangerous than not is that drivers are always letting themselves get low-level distracted. By the radio, or a song, or another conversation, or fantasies involving actress Erin Grey or something. Because driving is so boring. But when they look at their phone or handle it, that distraction goes up from "background distraction."

I think the issue is one of conflicting frames of reference, and what I call "conversational priority". If you're listening to / fiddling with the radio, you can interrupt it, without cost, to focus on the road. The same thing goes when you're chatting with a passenger - they're in the same place as you and they can see the car pull out in front of you that caused you to stop recounting that great anecdote. But when you're on the phone, the other person sees none of this(a separate "frame of reference") - meaning that the driver has to choose between a coherent conversation meeting accepted notions of interpersonal attentiveness, and focusing on the road. As often as not - well, more often than not - the conversation wins.



Disagree that talking hands-free is no more dangerous than doing nothing. Talking hands-free is more distracting than a conversation with a person in the car - presumably because the person is not with you.

Thanks for the link, that's great!

Pride demands however that I declare (even if no one believes me) that I came up with this idea well before that NYT article, and all by myself. I will have to check up on the blog author and see if we know anyone in common. Hm. Hm.

Talking hands free may be more distracting, but it doesn't seem to be more dangerous. Perhaps people slow down or drive more cautiously to compensate for their misdirected attention? There's a term for that, which I can't recall. It's why people wearing seatbelts are in more crashes.

I think it's called "risk compensation". I have found that I do tend to drive more cautiously and slowly when I'm having a cellphone conversation, but to the point at which I'm barely competent any longer. I may be safer than if I hadn't slowed down, but I am not sure I'm as safe as if I weren't talking on the phone - and I *know* I'm a lot more annoying to whoever has to navigate past me.

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