Tuesday, August 30, 2005

ET, don't phone home (if you are driving)

In the 1930s my uncle got a car that had a radio in it. The family was aghast at the foolhardiness of this recipe for disaster. Now the same arguments are being played out with mobile phones. But is it the same? I think not.

Research to be published soon in Applied Cognitive Psychology shows what a number of other studies have shown: talking on a car phone while driving is risky. On hundred students were asked to answer simple questions about the layout of buildings or verify statements about relative positions of buildings on campus while using a driving simulator.
Participants were poorer at maintaining a stable speed, or keeping a constant distance between themselves and other traffic than when only driving. Paradoxically, there was some indication that when drivers had to speak while driving, their lane control increased even though speed control decreased. (via News-Medical.net)
Either speaking or listening interfered with driving. Other research, using devices that track eye-movements, has shown that the usual "darting" gaze of an active driver reverted to a fixed straight ahead gaze when using a car phone. Coupled with actual epidemiologic data that "hands-free" devices do not mitigate the added risk of accidents from car phones (post), this research adds to the evidence that it is the cognitive aspects of talking on a phone rather than the physical act of holding it with one hand that is the problem.

Why this would be more of a problem for car phones than for talking with a passenger or listening to the radio is unclear. One could interpret this research as saying that these more usual activities are as dangerous as talking on a phone, but that isn't my experience and I doubt it is true. Clearly there is both more room for research here and also enough research to indicate that talking on a car phone while driving several tons of steel at more than 60 miles per hour (88 feet per second) isn't a very good idea. If the danger were only to the driver it would be one thing. But it is also to the passenger and everyone else that shares a road with them.

Because I had once expressed caution about health effects of electromagnetic fields, for a while I was frequently called upon for help by communities concerned about cell phone towers (transmitters) being sited in their midst. Often the sites were in really stupid places, like atop schools or daycare centers. But my concern was not so much about exposure from these tower transmitters (which was usually very low) as from the transmitter that people held in their hands, with an antenna plastered to their skulls. It was known that radiofrequency hot spots near the antenna existed within the cranium, although, since this was non-ionizing radiation whether this was harmful was debatable. My poinjt here, though, is that the siting of the cell towers, while not exposing people directly, was creating a situation where mobile phone technology was becoming pervasive and now has almost become a necessity for many people.

The vastly increased exposure of the population from handheld transmitters and now the problem of cognitive deficit of drivers careening down the highway are two consequences of the cell phone towers not related to the original concerns of residents, but possibly significantly more important.

Live and don't learn, I guess.