I swear, Ociffer, it wasn’t anywhere near my ear
I love it when one of my little pet theories is vindicated.
In yesterday’s Globe and Mail there was an article on driver distraction and cellphones. Ontario is introducing legislation (already in place in most provinces) that bans hand-held cellphones in the driver’s seat, but still allows hands-free devices.
Ever since the first province announced the first piece of this kind of legislation, I’ve been spouting off to anyone who will listen that hands-free isn’t good enough. Drivers may have both hands on the wheel, but that doesn’t mean they’re paying attention to the road. The Globe cites a University of Utah professor who agrees: “Prof. Strayer has measured the eye movements, brain activity and reaction time of cellphone-happy drivers, and has found those who prefer to chat while keeping their hands on the wheel are just as distracted.”
Dissenters argue that if we’re to ban dialing-and-driving outright, we should also ban loud car stereos and conversation with passengers. But I’ve always felt that there is an important difference, though I’ve had difficulty articulating why. Again, Prof. Strayer backs me up: “Talking to someone on your phone is more dangerous than chatting with someone sitting in the passenger seat: The effort engages visual and spatial parts of the brain that would otherwise be focused on the road.”
It makes sense, if you think about it. When someone is in the seat beside you, they’re sharing your experience of the road – they can see if there’s a busy intersection up ahead, if you’re getting cut off by a jerk in a sports car, if a pedestrian steps into the lane out of nowhere. They can shut up at the appropriate time and let you as the driver react to these situations; you don’t have to explain to them why you’ve suddenly dropped your end of the dialogue. In a phone conversation, the lack of visual cues means we have to put more effort into verbal responses and space-fillers.
I think there are a few other factors at play here, too – for one thing, voices over cellphones are obviously not as clear, and more concentration is required simply to decode people’s words. Also, I think the brain tries to visualize the person that is being spoken to, their surroundings, whatever situation they happen to be describing. My brain does, anyway. None of these things come into play when you’re conversing with someone inside the car.
Why do I care, you ask? I’m not even a driver. Well, I’m not a driver for a reason. The reason is that cars scare the ever-living shit out of me. Cars with distracted people at their wheels, even more so. It’s a bit of a fixation, I’ll admit. But consider one final quote from the Globe, which informs us that cellphone users are “four times more likely than other drivers to be in an accident – about the same rate of people who drive while drunk.” Seriously. Drunk driving in our society has been placed on about the same level as torturing puppies, and offenders are regularly hauled off to jail. So why do we continue to not only tolerate but defend other behaviours that are equally as dangerous?