Rant: Cell phone drivers are a SOLVEABLE PROBLEM!

So, I got to watch some of the spectacular side effects of driving while cradling a cell phone on the way home yesterday. You know, the mile-long backup from a trivial accident, and the countless near misses behind it as drivers with cell phones change lanes without warning or signaling, don't maintain reasonable following distances, etc. You know, typical road-rage material.

And I decided that either I'm missing something, or it's a problem that just shouldn't exist anymore.

First, I don't think trying to ban cell phone usage while driving will work. It won't get enforced adequately, it won't get obeyed adequately, and it will just annoy a lot of people.

What I'd like to see is a basic effort from car makers, phone makers/carriers, or better yet BOTH to just fix it.

We've all seen these cheap, clunky solutions to hands-free cell phones - car/radio adapters that are awkward to mount, might require a battery, might not have great pick-up, etc. Why can't the car manufactures build this stuff in? GM already has On-Star - use the mic/speakersystem from that, if you don't want to pump it through the stereo system. You don't have to invent the countless adapters to plug into every phone's aux jack; just make some standard mini-stereo inputs, and let the phone/carrier/aftermarket accessory industry produce adapters. You already have a widely-accepted standard for DC power, why not mic/speakers as well?

I'm convinced that the problem is NOT people talking on their cell phones; rather, it's people holding a cell phone while trying to drive. Up to your ear, or even out in front of you, you're keeping at least one hand busy, and moving/turning your head less, etc. THOSE are the behaviors that are problematic (especially if, like me, you have a manual transmission).

I've tried one of those cheap radio hookups, and it just didn't cut it. I've tried a earbug/mic attachment, it didn't cut it either (bad pickup, short cord, etc.), and that's still technically illegal (if you didn't know, drivers cannot legally wear any sort of headphone in most states at least; playing your music as loud or louder from external speakers is just fine, of course!). But if you could talk and listen the same way you'd talk/listen to a passenger in the car, the problem would essentially go away. Dialing/answering is no worse than fiddling with the A/C or the radio (granted, there are countless accidents caused by these activities, but you don't generally see folks fighting to ban the use or adjustment of a radio in a moving car).

So, which is it? Am I missing some good reason why there isn't a broader effort to make cars cell-phone-friendly? Yeah it'll tack on a few dollars to the price of a new car, but cell phone usage is nearly ubiquitous now, which means it's something a very high percentage of new-car customers would likely be interested in.

I'm generally against government 'nannying', and it seems like a lot of the regulations with automobiles can stray into this territory. But if safety is such a big deal, and if things like Daytime Running Lights and tire-pressure sensors can become federally mandated, why not a standard 2-way audio interface for phones while you're at it? I'd bet the cost/benefit on that would compare favorably with either of the other required features I just mentioned...

Comments (10)
  1. theCoach says:

    I would tend to agree with you, although bluetooth aor some wrieless interop would seem more logical. However, from waht I have gathered from people who actually study this stuff, the evidence suggests that the problem is more related to the driver being distracted by the conversation itself, not the hand holding. I do not have any links at hand, but that is what I remember which also jives with the studies that suggest teen drivers are much safer without other passengers in the car.

    Regardless of the safety issue, there should be a standard for cell phones to operate through the systems already built into the automobile.

    I am not sure about how this should be regulated. Perhaps the mere spector of a govt-mandated spec will get the major players off their heels.

  2. Travis Owens says:

    I watched an iteresting documentary on TV about a year ago where a research group tested off the street people doing various tasks while driving (in an enclosed obstacle course).

    They actually found people doing tasks are more accident prone that drunk drivers. Most notable was somebody who was on their cell phone while taking a list, of course this is an extreme example but we all know it does/can happen.

    I live in NY where cell phone use by the driver has been banned for a year. Does it stop people from using theri cell phone? No. Does it reduce the amount of cell phone usage? Yes.

    The truth is if it stop just 1 cell phone caused accident, the law works. More importantly, with such a law in place, when an accident happens, the victum will almost always see the other person on their cell and it becomes much easier to see who is at fault for an accident (cell phone records).

    I hate to be one to add another law to the pile but the truth is, it helps. There is no silver bullet here, but every little bit helps.

  3. Adam Young says:

    It’s not just drivers, but pedestrians too – people strolling along chatting away on their ‘phones, oblivious to the outside world, weaving all over the pavement…

  4. I tend to agree. Hands free should be a requirement for driving. Not talking on a cell phone would be better, but at least keep both hands on the wheel. My wish would be that cell phone makers standardize hands free stuff. It often seems like an afterthough. (The Audiovox SMT 5600, for example, requires you to use the phone to voice dial when using the included ear buds. Alternately, locking the phone on the Audiovox disables the bluetooth voice dial functions. Ugh)

  5. Eusebio Rufian-Zilbermann says:

    In Spain (and probably a few other countries) hands-free cell-phone systems integrated into the car are quite common actually. I’ve wondered many times why they weren’t more commonplace in the US. Yes, the clunky EZ-hands-free-as-seen-on-TV are cheap but the price difference is not that big and the integrated solutions are considerably better. By the way, the dialing/answering button can be integrated into the wheel and when used with voice dialing it can be even safer than adjusting the AC.

  6. Dan McCarty says:

    The whole argument that holding a cell phone must be a major distraction has a major fallacy: how do you account for drivers, like myself, who drive a stick shift?!



    Bah humbug.

    A lot of studies over the last few years have shown that hands-free kits do not make safer drivers. Why? The problem with talking to ANYONE while you’re driving is that you’re not concentrating on your driving, whether that anyone on the other end of your cell phone, in the car to your left, or sitting in your passenger seat.

    If you’re going to rant about cell phone use why not rant about EVERY OTHER DISTRACTING BEHAVIOR:

    – Eating chips

    – Fiddling with the radio

    – Programming your navigation system

    – Reaching to get a child something in the back seat

    – Putting on make up

    – Ogling other drivers

    – Looking at scenery

    – etc.

    Here in Chicago they just passed a bill prohibiting cell phone use without a hands-free kit. It’s silly. An alderman tried to derail the bill by attaching any unsafe behavior (see above list) to it but it passed anyway.

    If you’re going to outlaw one you need to outlaw the other. A distraction is a distraction. They’re not any different.

  7. Dan, I – and lots of research I’ve read and heard – agree with you that it’s the distraction of cell phones that’s the problem, and that hands-free kits won’t solve the problem. I do disagree, however, that a "distraction is a distraction". Eating a chip and having a conversation – especially a important conversation – require much different levels of focus on the distraction in question. When drivers are talking to passengers or people on the phone they tend to concentrate more on their conversation than the road, especially when interest in the subject matter is peaked.

    Banning mobile phones in cars may be a bit of overkill, but I think that stiffer penalties should be attached. I, too, have seen studies reporting that such drivers are more dangerous than drunk drivers, so perhaps the penalty for causing an accident while on the phone (just pull the LUGS) should be stiffer than drunk-driving accidents, too. That should help prevent responsible drivers from doing it. The irresponsible drivers may ignore any ban anyway.

  8. CRathjen says:

    I agree there are other distractions, but I do NOT agree that they’re all the same.

    You can time adjustments to the radio, A/C, etc. to when you’re fairly confident that, for that short interval, you can safely distract yourself for that moment. Granted, people that will look away from the road for some indefinite period while they’re tuning, primping, or fishing a water bottle off the right side floorboard (that’s the guy that rear-ended my car!), but that’s not the class of BAD DRIVERS I’m trying to fix.

    I’m talking about the class of people that *have* to hold their head and one hand a certain way because they’re holding a cell phone. I don’t see how anyone thinks this isn’t a real, and yet fixable, safety concern, vs. hands-free. Yes, merely having the conversation is distracting – I don’t disagree. But as I said, that’s not nearly as much a *fixable* problem as the limited field of view and occupied hand factor that holding a cell phone is.

    As far as the manual transmission argument goes, it’s not at all the same. You don’t lose any field of vision by operating a stick (unless you have to look at it or something – seek immediate help!). It’s the *posture* change, and limits, of a holding a phone that make it different than driving a stick. And of course, there’s the people who are trying to drive a stick with one hand and holding the phone with the other. Or, as even I have done, holding the phone against their ear and shoulder to keep one hand free – you’re telling me I can still see to the side and rear as well doing that as I could otherwise?

    My rant is that some parts of the problem are here to stay, while others need not be, and that at the same time, attempts to fix the WHOLE problem are generally not helping much, and when they’re unilateral (no cell phone usage while driving), they DO call into relief the OTHER tasks that should be similarly banned. Many drivers are already smart enough not to try applying make-up while driving (or at least to only do it when stopped). The ones that don’t, or that *Read a book while driving* – I can’t really see many of those stopping just because an under-enforced law says they shouldn’t.

    Let’s not forget that these people aren’t necessarily the ones IN the accidents that they *cause*, so you can’t just assume they’ll get caught when they’re actually in an accident – it could well be the car they cutoff or masked, and guess what? In NC at least, a car can’t be held liable for causing an accident unless it actually strikes or is struck (how’s that for justice?). So if he cuts you off, and you swerve and hit a *different* car, the police will NOT be issuing the offending driver any sort of citation.

  9. Chris says:

    Interesting study Dan, though I’d question the ability to draw such extensive conclusions from such a focused experiment.

    Many many activities require both visual and auditory focus – driving! (granted, it’s MOSTLY visual), video games, any team sport – the list goes on.

    This study has as much to do with why cell phone driving is bad as it does to do with why *listening to the radio* while driving does, at least for people who are actively listening (favorite songs, talk radio, etc.), and as I’ve said before, you don’t see that many folks up in arms about listening to a radio or cd player or talking to someone else physically in the car (though there are still any number of accidents as a result).

    I wish there was hard data on how the act of physically holding a cell phone impairs driving ability – did those ‘cell phone users are as bad as drunk driver’ experiments test talking on the cell phone, or just holding one?

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