Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dangerous mobile phone use

Every so often I hear stories about how dangerous mobile phones are. The media love to highlight how much more dangerous mobile phones are in cars.

Now, I won't deny that the idea of texting or sending e-mails while driving is a chilling thought. I'm glad that many states have made it illegal to do so, and I hope that the law will earnestly curtail these practices.

But when it comes to mobile phone use in terms of making and receiving calls-- especially using hands-free setups-- I wonder how legitimate these dire warnings really are. For example, one recent report claimed that studies showed that, even with a hands-free arrangement, talking on mobile phones was more distracting than, say, carrying on a conversation with a passenger. As a result, they say, laws should be passed that outlaw ANY use of mobile phones while driving.

Now, I'll grant the premise of the study: when talking on the phone, the person on the other end doesn't know when to stop talking to allow you to focus on traffic, etc. The theory goes that a passenger will sense (even if they don't notice themselves) when driving needs to be the only thing demanding a driver's attention, whereas a caller (who isn't present in the car) won't know and thus will just keep talking. I wouldn't say there is nothing to this.

What I would say, though, is three very-related things in response (that, I think, invalidate the conclusions to some degree):

First, this isn't new. Did they conduct similar studies when the radio was first introduced? Or the drive-thru window at a fast food restaurant? Doubtful, at least in part because we are in search of scapegoats and impersonal explanations more now than then. In terms of the constant demand and distraction potential, the radio is just as bad theoretically as a mobile phone. Yet no one is calling for removal of car stereos for the sake of road safety. Why? Because...

Second, people adapt. I estimate that, in 10 years or so, this will be a non-factor for road safety. By that point, every vehicle will have a hands-free setup included and talking on the phone in the car (if we still call them "phones") will be as commonplace as listening to music or talk radio. People will have learned to simply tune out the distraction and focus when they need to do so, and callers will be used to the occasional pause in conversation or the need to repeat themselves. Drivers will do this when danger is present in the same way that I have learned to tune out the noise of my kids in the back of the van (who are at least as oblivious to present hazards as anyone calling me on my mobile phone). I already notice this happening. The scapegoaters who refuse to demand personal responsibility for safe practices will have moved on, because...

Third, there are plenty of other dangerous practices. Beyond the radio, eating lunch on the go, kids in the back seat, and mobile phones, I've seen/known people to do far more dangerous things. Ever witness another driver putting on makeup, playing harmonica, sorting mail, or reading while driving at speeds of 60+ MPH? I have. Notice, too, that none of these are new concepts or technology. They're just poor driving practices!

I think a lot of this goes back to my ideas regarding fear of technology: once a new technology is mainstreamed into culture, we begin to realize that it might actually have negative implications as well-- and we begin to suspect and blame it, rather than the users, for the problems that might arise.

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