How to stop cell-phone use behind the wheel.

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Dec. 13 2010 5:45 PM

Driving While Interrogated

How to stop cell-phone use behind the wheel.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended a ban on all mobile device use while driving, including hands-free gadgets. In 2009, Will Saletan argued for a device free driver’s seat and proposed four public policies that could help curb texting and calling while behind the wheel. His article is reprinted below.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

It's time to talk about how we can give up cell-phone use while driving.

Let's stop pretending that we aren't doing it, that we're doing it safely, or that it can be done safely. There's too much evidence that none of these things is true.

I won't bore you with every detail of the research to date. You can read some of it in "The Mind-BlackBerry Problem," published in Slate last fall. Better yet, read Myron Levin's terrific investigative articles in the Los Angles Times and Mother Jones. Levin reported that the researchers at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had analyzed studies, added their own preliminary test findings, and prepared documents concluding that nonemergency use of cell phones at the wheel was killing too many people and should be stopped. Those documents, which the agency's chief of staff refused to release, were subsequently demanded by the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen under the Freedom of Information Act. Today they were posted by the New York Times.

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One of the documents, an internal PowerPoint presentation, estimates that in 2002, cell-phone use contributed to more than 182,894 crashes and 1,248 deaths. The researchers' minimum calculation was 508 deaths; Levin reported an internal estimate of 955; a Harvard study put the number at 2,600. A draft letter to the nation's governors, prepared for then-Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta but supposedly never forwarded to him, warned:

NHTSA estimates that driver distraction contributes to about 25 percent of all traffic crashes. … A significant body of research worldwide indicates that both hand-held and hands-free cell phones increase the risk of a crash. Indeed, research has demonstrated that there is little, if any, difference between the use of hand-held and hands-free phones in contributing to the risk of driving while distracted. In either operational mode, we have found that the cognitive distraction is significant enough to degrade a driver's performance. We recommend that drivers not use these devices when driving, except in an emergency.

The same general conclusions and recommendations appear on NHTSA's Web site, though the agency doesn't make them easy to find. The URL  is so long it won't even fit into a Microsoft Word hyperlink. (To get it, type "NHTSA Policy and FAQs on Cellular Phone Use While Driving" into a search engine.) The important lessons to take away from the research are these: First, cell-phone use while driving is a brain problem, not a hands problem. Even with hands-free use, phones suck your brain out of the physical world, fatally distracting you from the road. Second, the effect is as bad as driving drunk. Hands-free phone usecan impair driving skills more than intoxication does.

We prohibit driving under the influence of alcohol. We should prohibit driving under the influence of cell phones, too. But giving up our phones is hard. How can we do it? How can we maintain what cell phones offer—mobile access—without endangering others?

Let's start with the wireless industry's recommendations. Its "Driving Tips" include these three rules: "Don't Text and Drive," "Place calls when you are not moving," and "Let the person you are speaking with know you are driving; if necessary suspend the call in heavy traffic or hazardous weather conditions."

The research compiled by NHTSA and others shows that conducting phone calls, not just placing them, is too dangerous at the wheel. So the second rule needs to be extended: Use the phone only when you aren't moving. The third rule needs to be similarly amended: Let the person you're speaking with know that you're in a car, that you may soon have to drive it, and that the call must then be suspended.

One of the draft documents NHTSA never released is a "Proposed Policy" that said

[D]rivers should do at least one of the following:
Stop the vehicle in a safe location that is off the road, well away from traffic, before they receive or place their calls.
Allow a passenger to receive or place calls.
Use the phone's voice mailbox feature if so equipped, and return the call when not driving.

That's a sensible compromise. If you have a passenger, let him or her take the call. If you don't have a passenger, or if the call is too private to share, let your voice mail take it. If the call is important and you want to check the voice mail, pull over.

What public policies can help us follow these rules? Here are a few ideas.

1. Cell-phone pullovers. Airports have cell-phone lots where you can pull over to wait for notification that the person you're picking up has landed. Why not extend this idea to other roads? We can't build lots everywhere, but we could post signs and mark shoulders to designate safe places for pulling over. That's where you could take your incoming call, pick it up from voice mail, or place and complete an outgoing call.

2. Carpooling. If you need to conduct business by phone while driving, team up with a colleague or neighbor. The driver drives; the passenger talks and keeps the call off speakerphone so the driver doesn't have to hear both ends of the conversation. You can always pull over and switch roles. It's like having a designated driver, except that with phones, unlike alcohol, the driver can indulge when he's not driving.

3. Mass transit. The most efficient way to let people yap while traveling is to pack them in a vehicle with a single designated driver. That's called public transportation. Transit agencies should take steps to facilitate passenger phone use, such as improving underground transmission. If noise is a problem, agencies can restrict phone use to texting. The important thing is to get phone users out of their cars.

4. Software. According to Levin, "some automakers now include a lockout feature to keep drivers from performing complicated tasks—like entering destinations into a car's navigation system—while the vehicle is moving." Maybe phones could be similarly disabled by integrating them with car software. Levin also discusses a solution from Aegis Mobility:

The Aegis software can detect when a phone is in a "driving state," which lets target customers—mostly parents and company safety directors—monitor on-road calling activity or block calls while the car is in motion. The hard part has been finding partners among the big wireless companies, which would sell the blocking service for an extra monthly fee. In October, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. said it would offer discounts to customers using Aegis once wireless providers adopt the technology.

I can't promise that any of these ideas will turn out be feasible or effective. But maybe they'll help us start a conversation. It's time to outlaw driving while phoning, just as we outlawed driving while drunk. The next step is to figure out realistically how we can make that happen.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1) Don't authorize torture till you've seen it. 2) Blocking cell-phone use in prisons. 3) Bomb innovation and detection in Afghanistan.)

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