Gadgets and Cars: Dangerous Together, Period?

By  |  Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 11:47 am

iPhone CarThe New York Times has published a scary article reporting that in 2003, the U.S. Department of Transportation came to the conclusion that talking on the phone while driving–even with a hands-free kit–was alarmingly distracting and dangerous. (In 2002, about 955 fatalities resulted from cell phone use while driving.) The DoT was afraid of ticking off Congress and never did much with its research, the Times charges.

The Times says that some studies have shown that yakking on the phone while behind the wheel can be as risky as driving under the influence of alcohol. Which inevitably leads to the question, if it’s as dangerous as drunk driving, should it be just as illegal?

And that’s only one of the questions that the Times story left me asking myself. In gizmo time, 2003 was several generations ago. Today’s wireless phones don’t just let you make calls–they provide driving directions, music, movies, social networking, and a lot more. I assume that we can all agree that you shouldn’t watch Hancock or update your Twitter status while in the driver’s seat of a moving vehicle. (If you don’t agree, I hope you steer clear of highways 101 and 280 in Northern California.) But what about GPS? Or using your phone as a radio, especially if you switch channels at 60mph?

Here in California, we have a law that mandates use of hands-free kits and forbids texting. You may be stunned to hear that it’s widely ignored and hard to enforce. It also seems a tad outdated and confusing: It says it’s “an infraction to write, send, or read text-based communication on an electronic wireless communications device.” Does that refer to text messaging, or to just about anything that involves reading or writing of text on a gadget?

And hey, is my built-in GPS navigation system any safer than one I might use on my iPhone?

I’m still sorting out my feelings here. I don’t want to be killed by someone who ploughed into my car while reading TMZ. Nor do I wish to kill anyone else while editing video on my iPhone. But I’m worried about prohibitionism, too. (Yes, outlawing the use of wireless devices while driving–including hands-free use–would save lives. Then again, so would outlawing driving.)

What’s your take on all this? Any ideas on how technology can help solve the problem? Is voice recognition part of the solution?



8 Comments For This Post

  1. Tom Says:

    This is a difficult topic. Everyday I drive around folks who are so busy on the phone that they are paying little to no attention to speed, lane changing, traffic, ect… However I don’t feel that outlawing it completely would be a good idea. I feel that if you want to talk on the phone you should have to take a course that certifies you. Or something. The only thing I’m positive about is that some form of restrictions need to be inacted. The same with senior citizens. Yes they need vehicle to get around, but in all honesty I am more afraid of the seniors than I am of a drunk driver.

  2. Bobman Says:

    BBC had a flash game that supposedly “proved” that cellphone usage was bad. It *required* you to react and respond appropriately to someone calling on a speakerphone while you *accurately* counted the number of pedestrians wearing certain colors of shirts.

    Forget that I couldn’t do the shirt counting thing even if I was ignoring the audio prompts, but if I’m on the phone while I’m in a tough driving situation (lots of traffic) I tell the person on the phone to wait, or I call them back.

    Like many logical fallacies, it isn’t hard to cook up a scenario to “prove” it is dangerous.

    That said, people do need to use cellphones responsibly. We don’t let our new drivers even listen to the radio because, as a new driver, there are too many things they need to keep track of. Perhaps a blanket prohibition to talking on a speakerphone is inappropriate; something age-related might be better.

    Further, the distinction I would make is anything that requires you to take your eyes off the road too much, like texting, playing with a GPS, or messing with your phone.

  3. Vox Says:

    Age-related driving restrictions are silly…a couple of years ago, Top Gear was talking about a new supercar that was coming out (can’t remember which one), and that the manufacturers of the car thought it was so dangerous that they wouldn’t sell it to drivers under the age of 25…which made it so Lewis Hamilton, current Formula 1 champion couldn’t buy one…that is, the best driver in the world can’t drive your car just because he’s 24 years old? Uhm…right.

    Same with any other age-related restriction…every single one of them is stupid.

  4. Bobman Says:

    Regarding age restrictions, check out your average car rental place. They (typically) won’t rent to anyone under 24. Car insurance is also higher for males under 24. Can you find an exceptional person? Sure, like Lewis Hamilton.

    But that also demonstrates the logical fallacy; just because there is an exception doesn’t mean the rule doesn’t apply in a majority of cases.

    And that is why I bring up insurance companies and car rentals. They aren’t guessing, and they aren’t being politically (in)correct. They have hard statistics that show them where the risks lie, and risks lie with new/young drivers, and even more-so with males.

  5. Peggy Says:

    It seems to me that what everyone is missing is that the distraction level of talking on the phone while driving (at least hands free) is no less than the distraction while talking to a passenger.

    I mean, you are still thinking about something other than the road and, frequently, taking your eyes from the road to look at the person you are talking to.

    Should we ban conversations in cars altogether?

  6. Bobman Says:

    Mythbusters did a segment on cellphone driving and they raised this question as well. They felt the subtle difference was that the person in the car next to you can see your facial expressions and the oncoming traffic, and will likely respect your need for concentration.

    The person on the phone has none of these cues and may become agitated at your lack of response, which may lead to the driver attempting to give more focus on the phone call instead of the road.

    So I’d agree that they are close, but not the same.

  7. Kayza Kleinman Says:

    I would hope that the California law applies to ANY sending of text on a gadget. Why should texting be any better than email?

    As for in car conversations being safer because the person in the car can see the oncoming traffic and your facial expressions, the first half is probably true. But, if the other person – even in the front seat, can see your facial expression then that is WORSE than the telephone conversation, and if the person is in the back FAR worse. In order for the other person to see your facial expressions, you have to turn away from the road – which means you can’t see what is coming. If you are turning to the back, you might as well go take a nap.

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