Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Driving to distraction

When last we drove by the cell phone problem it was to discuss a study from the University of Utah that showed (surprise!) that tlaking on a cell phonee while driving markedly affected reaction time. File in the Department of the Obvious.

Yesterday the British Medical Journal (.pdf) published a paper on drivers in Perth, Australia showing that none of the work-arounds--earpieces, hands-free devices, speaker phones--do any good. Using actual crash data and cellphone records, these researchers showed that talking on the phone while driving increased your risk of being involved in an accident requiring hospitalization four fold. The study couldn't be done in the US because cell phone records are not public information (I guess the Patriot Act doesn't cover risks to people's lives, only risks to their privacy).
The new study examined the cellphone records of 744 drivers who had accidents in Perth, Australia, where drivers are required to use hands-free devices. Researchers estimated the time of the crash and looked at whether the driver used a cellphone in the minutes leading up to the accident. They then examined similar time intervals in the days before the crash to calculate the increased risk of using the cellphone.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research group in Virginia, sent researchers to three hospitals in Perth during a two-year period from 2002 to 2004 to interview crash victims. The researchers asked several questions, including whether the driver had a hands-free device in the car and how often the device was used. To avoid having drivers incriminate themselves, the researchers did not ask if a hands-free apparatus was in use at the time of the crash. Rather, they asked drivers how often they used such a device and factored that into determining the devices' effectiveness.

"There is no safety advantage associated with switching to the types of hands-free devices that are commonly in use," the study concludes. (Jeremy Peters in The New York Times)
Sex, age or type of mobile phone did not affect the association. The magnitude of the increased risk (four fold) is consistent with other studies done with different methods.

It has been estimated that about one in twenty drivers are using cell phones at any one time in the US. Driing while using a hand-held phone is illegal in the European Union, Australia and in the US in New York New Jersey and Washington, DC. (on October 1, Connecticut will join them). This study shows, however, that these laws probably don't help. Other studies have shown that the usual eye scanning motion becomes fixed straight ahead as soon as someone starts talking on the phone while driving. It seems that the competition for attention affects reaction time and perhaps accurate and rapid judgment.

The obvious solution is to build either the phones or the cars so that they cannot work together. I don't hear much enthusiasm for this from either the carmakers or the telecom industry. So when their lobbyists call Congress while driving at high speed in their Mercedes, they are endangering me twice, once by being on the same road with me and then again by enabling other cell-holes to be on the same road with me.

A twofer. Very efficient.