Drop the iPhone and Focus on the Road, Already

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’re running late. Again. (Blame your snooze button and the mystery stain on your favorite top.) As you barrel down the road, you soon grind to a halt. The driver in front of you is going beyond-belief slow. He’s taking an eternity to move when the light turns green, and he clearly has no clue how the turn indicator works. When you finally pass him, you cast the stink eye, and immediately see the problem. He’s completely absorbed—in his cellphone.

If you’re like me, you’d curse the driver at this point with a creative string of expletives, and wish there were a cop around to bust the jerk.

Most of us know this type of distracted driving is illegal in many places and downright dangerous, to boot. I’ve never been one to gab on my phone while driving. And if I do need to make a call, I rely on Siri, or similar voice-activated features integrated into my car, keeping my phone-fiddling moments to a minimum. I’d never drive like that inconsiderate a-hole.

Well, maybe not so much.

Technology + Driving = Stupid

Photo courtesy Cell Phone Safety

Turns out, those cool hands-free and speech-based technologies are just as mentally taxing, and lead to sluggish reaction times and compromised brain function, according to a new study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Conducted by the University of Utah and cognitive-distraction expert, Dr. David Strayer, researchers measured brainwaves, eye and head movements, and reaction times as drivers attempted to multitask while behind the wheel.

So what did they find? Activities like listening to the radio while driving created minimal risk and talking on cellphones (hands-free or handheld) was deemed a moderate risk.

By comparison, in-vehicle infotainment—such as listening and responding to voice-activated emails or texts—created the highest risk. This type of distraction can cause “inattention blindness,” meaning drivers miss crucial cues right in front of them, such as stop signs or pedestrians.

“Don’t assume that if your eyes are on the road and your hands are on the wheel that you are unimpaired,” Strayer said about the latest findings. “If you don’t pay attention, then you are a potential hazard on the roadway.”

Guilty as Charged

This news is hardly a revelation. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for the past ten years—arguably the capital for the self-absorbed and inconsiderate driver. I’ve witnessed an impressive array of idiotic and rude maneuvers executed by distracted drivers. And, I’ll admit, I’ve even been guilty of such moves myself on occasion. (It’s not like Los Angeles is known for its bucolic driving conditions, after all. While creeping along bumper-to-bumper gridlock on Wilshire, who can blame me for checking my email while behind the wheel?)

In 2008, California, followed the lead of other states and enacted a law prohibiting handheld phone use while driving. But, at least in my experience, it seems the number of distracted drivers out there has increased in that time—likely correlating to the rise of the smartphone.

Recent statistics reflect our increasing use of smartphones while we drive—even among parents. (And parents are supposed to drive super extra safe when our kids are in the car, right?) A survey released by the American Academy of Pediatrics in May reports that almost 90 percent of parents engage in at least one technology-based distraction while driving their child. I’ve, ahem, been guilty of that myself, having just the other day called my husband while chauffeuring my two kids.

The AAA has recommended car manufacturers improve, or restrict, voice-activated technologies to reduce driver distraction. But with behemoth car manufacturers and other interests lobbying Washington, new laws are unlikely to happen anytime soon.

I’ll Shut Up Now

So what does that mean for us? At risk of sounding like a preachy know-it-all…perhaps we should stop using our phones while driving? You know, like back in the dark ages when mobile phones looked like bricks with buttons and owning a car phone was a luxury reserved for attorneys and other Important People who needed to stay connected. (Okay, I’m dating myself.)

Like AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet says, “These increasingly common voice-driven, in-vehicle technologies should be limited to use for just core driving tasks unless the activity results in no significant driver distraction.”

Duly noted.

Related Links

AAA News Release

University of Utah News Release

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