It used to be that the only thing distracting the average driver was the radio. The urge to turn the knob and scan for the best song available can be so difficult to resist. As a result vehicular accidents may occur as the driver gets distracted. In the 21st century the need to stay focused on the task of driving has become a very challenging task. In the past few years, the radical improvements on mobile electronic devices made it possible for commuters to bring their work with them as well as maintain their social networking activities while driving. This may be a good way to maximize output but researchers are saying that cell phone use while driving is as dangerous as drunk driving and therefore it must be banned.
It’s an Epidemic
It is common to find drivers with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a cell phone pressed close to one ear. They are not doing some form of weird exercise while enduring a long commute they are actually talking to someone on the phone and allowing themselves to be distracted and therefore hampering their reaction time if untoward incidents occur while driving. For many driving is something they do automatically. This means that they had performed this same task countless of times and gone through the same route on a daily basis and therefore they know what to expect at every turn. Still, accidents can happen any time and when they do drivers will need two hands on the wheel as well as their full concentration to avert a disaster.
There are traditional sources of driver distraction such as talking to passengers, eating, drinking, lighting a cigarette, applying make-up, and listening to the radio (Strayer, Drews, & Crouch, 2006). But in recent years there are new electronic devices that were created to be used outside the homes and this means that those who spend a considerable time commuting can maximize their time on the road by using interactive information delivery systems (Strayer, Drews, & Crouch, 2006). For many, using their cell phones means getting more work done and not wasting the precious minutes spent driving to and from work.
Although it is common knowledge that cell phone use while driving increases the risk of collisions and other forms of vehicular accidents it is quite a challenge to quantify the use of electronic devices and how it can hamper reaction time. This prompted many researchers to benchmark “…driving performance while using a mobile phone to a clearly dangerous level of performance” (Sturnquist, 2006). The breakthrough came when researchers discovered similarities in drunk driving – a blood alcohol level of 0.08% – and cell phone use such as significant delayed brake reaction time as well as the relative risk of motor vehicle collision (Sturnquist, 2006).
Since alcohol impairs driving performance, and this was established scientifically a long time ago, those who wanted to ban cell phone use while driving are using the same argument, that it is as dangerous as drunk driving (Strayer, Drews, & Crouch, 2006). But it will be an uphill battle since interest groups and a significant number of consumers will not allow their cell phone privileges taken away even if they are barreling down a highway at top speeds.
Urge to Use Phones
It will be pointed out later that laws governing cell phone use while driving are specifically tailored to novice drivers and for good reason. Young drivers, especially those who are barely out of their teens are very familiar with new technology that allows them to communicate with their friend even while on the road. For older people the ability to send text messages, e-mail, watch mobile TV and even download information from the Internet while inside the car is amazing as well as ludicrous. Why is it that they cannot wait until they reach home or their workplace before doing all those complicated tasks?
The answer is easy, why wait if these things can be completed while commuting. It is easier to endure the boredom of traveling if mobile devices come in handy. It is irresistible to get more work done with the notion that one is saving time while enduring a long commute. It is acceptable if the one doing the high-tech stuff are seated behind the driver but it is just unfortunate that many are doing the same complex task while behind the wheel.
For the not so young segment of the population the urge to use phones is connected to the need to make more money at the shortest span of time. For many it is not just about earning a living but also the fact that they had to respond to calls. One of the major upside of mobile phones is the ability to reach someone even if they are outside their home or their office. The downside of having a mobile phone is that people can call, even if someone purposely left home or office. In other words callers can sometimes abuse this privilege and force the cell phone user to pick up even if it is not appropriate to do so. When it comes to a boss calling an employee, there is no reason not to accept the call, even while driving.
It does not require an astute scientist to realize that cell phone use while driving can easily distract the driver. Then why is it that many continue to use their phones while behind the wheel? Aside from the reasons given earlier, the demands of social networking and making a living, there is also another major reason why many find it irresistible to talk on a hand held phone or send text messages while driving. These people have the wrong notion that driving is a simple task that they had already mastered. Behavior scientists and psychologists beg to differ and they argue that driving is a very complicated task that requires three levels of mental and physical control. These three levels are described as follows (Drews, Pasupathi, & Strayer, 2008):
Operational Level – Also known as control level and involves keeping the vehicle on a predetermined course and being mindful of lateral movements so that the car does not drift on the side of the road. This also includes automatic, sensory-motor sequences, such as steering and gear changing (Hole, 2007).
Tactical Level – This involves keeping a close watch on other vehicles on the road if they are approaching or if the driver is driving too close to another car. This also includes attending to traffic signs and pedestrians.
Strategic Level – This involves more executive and goal-directed aspects of driving. This also includes choice of route and speed (Hole, 2007).
There is agreement among many researchers that when a driver is distracted they greatly increase their risk of being involved in an automobile accident. According to estimates, approximately 25% of all crashes in the United States result from driver inattention or distraction (Burke, 2006). Researchers are also finding out that due to distraction cell phone users exhibited delay in their response to events (Strayer, Drews, & Crouch, 2006). This is not only about not using the brakes in time but also about the inability to see incoming vehicles even if they are looking in the direction of the vehicles. This can only mean that drivers were seriously distracted so that they were thinking of other things and so that incoming vehicle was just a blurry image even if they were directly looking at it.
The data coming from researchers is not a biased study on the effects of cell phone use while driving. In order to show that their data can pass closer scrutiny from critics, researchers used a variety of methods such as computer-based tracking tasks, high-fidelity simulation, driving vehicles on a closed circuit and epidemiological studies of car crashes (Drews, Pasupathi, & Strayer, 2008). Using these various methods of collating data the conclusion was unanimous, “The level of impairment is comparable to being intoxicated at a blood alcohol level of.08” (Drews, Pasupathi, & Strayer, 2008). If drunk driving is a major problem on the streets of America then it is time to curb the problem of cell phone use before it can claim many lives.
The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) is a nonprofit organization and proclaims itself as the state’s voice on highway safety. According to the said group there are at least four major discussion points when it comes to legislation aimed at reducing the cell phone related accidents and these are listed as follows:
Handheld Cell Phone Bans for All Drivers – There are five states (California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Washington) as well as the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands prohibiting all drivers from talking on handheld cell phones while driving;
All Cell Phone Bans – No state completely bans the use of all types of cell phone use but may prohibit cell phone use by different segments of the population. Yet there are 21 states that ban all cell use by novice drivers and in 18 states school bus drivers are prohibited from all cell phone use when there are passengers present;
Driving While Texting – There are only 12 states text messaging is illegal for all drivers. When it comes to Bus drivers there are only 2 states that legally restrict school bus drivers from texting while driving.
Preemption Laws – There are currently 8 states that have laws prohibiting local jurisdiction from enacting restrictions while in 6 other states localities are allowed to ban cell phone use (GHSA, 2009).
This data clearly shows that there is no agreement with regards to the harmful effects of cell phone use and thus there are differences in legislation. This can also mean that while it is risky to use cell phones while driving, there are those who will willingly take that risk because they cannot afford to miss a call. Justifying the reason for cell phone use while on the road is a controversial issue. In fact the state of Utah simply considers speaking on a cell phone as a larger “distracted driver” issue and will consider it only an offense if a driver has committed also another moving violation other than speeding (GHSA, 2009).
It can also be argued that lawmakers needed more time to understand the significant difference between thumbing the phone to send text messages and talking on handheld cell phones. Based on information given above there is not one state that prohibits all types of cell phone use meaning in some places one can only use text messaging and in others one can only talk on the phone. Part of the reason why there is delayed reaction when it comes to banning cell phone use while driving can be attributed to relatively new technology under scrutiny. Depending one one’s point of view cell phones only became popular in the last decade or so (Hole, 2007). For some there is not enough data to show the clear link between cell phone use and accidents.
Last year California enacted laws that prohibited driving while talking on a handheld phone and since then there are thousands of motorists that had been issued citations (McNichol, 2008). The base fine for the first offense is a mere $20 although subsequent convictions can up to $50. Still, there seems very little that can discourage commuters from ever using their phones. It can be argued that many will try to do it as long as they do not get caught.
They will not be afraid to challenge highway patrolmen in a game of cat and mouse because if they get apprehended they will only have to pay a small amount of money. If indeed cell phone use is as dangerous as drunk driving then it must not only be banned but lawmakers must also make tougher laws to successfully discourage drivers from even considering it while they are behind the wheel.
Texting is difficult to monitor and therefore laws banning driving while texting is tough to enforce (Lynch, 2008). While it is easy to catch a speeding vehicle with a driver holding a phone to his ear, it would be a great challenge to catch someone texting when the phone is clearly out of view, on his lap or held lower than the steering wheel. There are also those who cannot simply resist the urge to show their nimbleness as seen in a Facebook group called “I Text Message People While Driving and I Haven’t Crashed Yet” (Lynch, 2008). There are those who vigorously defend their rights to use the phone while on the road and predictably the cell phone industry is supporting them all the way.
For many years wireless firms argue that it is unfair to single out cell phone use from a range of driver distractions (McNichol, 2008). This is supported by one study that says cell phone use was responsible for only 1.5 percent of distracted driving accidents (Weinstein, 2002). The only problem with this study is that it was conducted 8 years ago and since then cell phones are cheaper and loaded with more features that it is difficult to resist the urge to use it while driving.
There are many counter-arguments with regards to the need to ban cell phone use while driving. Wireless firms who oppose anti-cell phone use laws are understandably worried about their profit margins. The more people use their cell phones the more money they will be able to rake in. While it is easy to understand the fervor of lobbyists sent by telecom giants it is harder to understand others who argue that cell-phone is an insignificant contributor to driver distracted accidents.
It is hard to force them especially if laws are not tough enough to compel them to change their behavior. The best thing that others can do is to persuade them to wait at the end of the commute to send those urgent messages. If in an emergency they need to pull over to use their cell phones and not get distracted with office work and social networking while behind the wheel.
Numerous studies support the claim that drivers who use their cell phone while driving can be impaired in the same way as drunk drivers do. It is important to note that researchers used different methods in collating data and yet arrived at the same conclusion – that this activity is as dangerous as having an alcohol level beyond the legal limit.
This means less time to react in an emergency situation. Even without expert opinion it does not require a neurosurgeon to realize that if one is texting he or she must momentarily look into the small screen of his or her cell phone in order to type a message. During those brief moments that they are not aware of their surroundings their cell phone may be the last thing that they see on earth.
Burke, M. (2006). Forensic Medical Investigation of Motor Vehicle Incidents. FL: CRC Press.
Drews, F. M. Pasupathi, & D. Strayer. (2008). Passenger and Cell Phone Conversations in Simulated Driving. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 14(4): 392-400.
Governors Highway Safety Association. (2009). Cell Phone Driving Laws. Web.
Hole, G. (2007). The Psychology of Driving. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Lynch, S. (2008). Text-Messaging Behind the Wheel. Time Magazine. Web.
McNichol, Tom. (2008). Cell Phones on the Road: What Goes? Time Magazine. Web.
Strayer, D. F. Drews, & D. Crouch (2006). A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver. Human Factors. 48(2): 381-391.
Sturnquist, D. (2006). Mobile Phones and Driving. New York: Nova Science Publishers.
Weinstein, L. (2002). Cell Phone Ban Not a Good Call. Web.