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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Text, Talk, and Drive: Supertasker Slayers

"Driving while talking on a cell phone
is extremely hazardous for most people,
and only a tiny fraction of 'supertaskers'
can do both simultaneously without any ill effect

"The odds are “overwhelmingly against”
most people being multitaskers --
'about as good as your chances of flipping a coin
 and getting five heads in a row.'"

(Dave Strayer, PhD and James Watson, PhD, Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 2010)

University of Utah psychologists found that only 2.5% of people they studied could successfully drive and use a cell phone at the same time. Most people --97.5% -- aren’t able to drive like they should if they’re talking on a cell phone, researchers say.

The findings don’t mean that supertaskers are smarter than most folks, but probably that genetic factors are at play, making some people better able to do two or more things at once, one of the study authors, Dave Strayer, PhD, tells WebMD.

The researchers say the results were in line with Strayer’s previous studies showing that driving performance routinely declines when people talk on cell phones.

A 2003 study at the University of Utah measured response time, following distance, and driving speed of a control group, subjects at the legal blood alcohol level of 0.08%, and subjects involved in cell phone conversations. “After controlling for driving difficulty and time on task, the study concluded that cell phone drivers exhibited greater impairment than intoxicated drivers.”

Previous research has also shown that cell phone conversations “lead to a form of inattention blindness, causing drivers to fail to see up to half the information in the driving environment that they would have noticed” had they not been talking, the authors write.


How can anyone ignore the facts? People must not use a cell phone to do anything while they drive an automobile. I am sure most defensive drivers and informed citizens support a ban on using cell phones and texting while driving. This ban is really a "no brainer" backed by common sense, by research, and by statistics.

Danger Defined

The National Safety Council estimates
that 28% of all accidents and deaths
on U.S. highways involve drivers using cell phones.

Text messaging alone caused more than 16,000 deaths in car accidents from 2001 to 2007. According to new U.S. government research, deaths related to cell phones and texting while driving rose 28 percent in just three years, from 4,572 in 2005 to 5,870 in 2008. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that in 2011 there were 3,000 fatal accidents resulting from "distracted driving."
Twenty to fifty percent of all reported accidents are related to driver inattention. Driver distraction is a sub-category of inattention, which is estimated to be a contributing factor in eight to thirteen percent of all crashes.

Here are some facts from the Safe Texting Campaign Website (

Distracted driving facts

  1. The No. 1 source of driver inattention is use of a wireless device (Virginia Tech/NHTSA)
  2. Drivers that use cell phones are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves (NHTSA, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)
  3. Distraction from cell phone use while driving (hand held or hands free) extends a driver’s reaction as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent (University of Utah)
  4. 10% of drivers aged 16 to 24 years old are on their phone at any one time
  5. Driving while distracted is a factor in 25% of police reported crashes and cost society about $230 billion a year
  6. Driving while using a cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37%
  7. Of all cell phone related tasks - including talking, dialing, or reaching for the phone - texting while driving is the most dangerous.
  8. A car driver dialing a cell phone is 2.8 times more likely to get into a crash than a non-distracted driver. (Virginia Tech)
  9. A driver reaching for a cell phone or any other electronic device is 1.4 times more likely to experience a car crash.
  10. A car driver talking on their phone is 1.3 times more likely to get into an accident.
  11. For every 6 seconds of drive time, a driver sending or receiving a text message spends 4.6 of those seconds with their eyes off the road. This makes texting the most distracting of all cell phone related tasks. (Virginia Tech)
Ohio Law

Between 2009 and 2011, 31,231 accidents in Ohio involved distracted drivers, state police say. Those wrecks led to 74 deaths and 7,825 injuries.

Gov. John R. Kasich has signaled he’ll sign the texting and driving legislation approved by the state Legislature. The final version of the plan cleared the House May 15 on a 82-12 vote. The Senate passed it earlier this month. Ohio will be the 39th state in the nation with a texting law.

Ohio's new texting law goes into effect 90 days after the governor signs the measure, with a six-month warning period to follow.

The Senate watered down the original legislation, resulting in for secondary enforcement for adult texters. This means that police need another reason to stop and cite violators, such as weaving or speeding.

All drivers will be banned from texting, though young drivers could more easily be pulled over for it.
The bill would make texting with hand-held devices a secondary offense for adults. That means drivers could be ticketed for typing emails or instant messages only if they were first pulled over for another offense, such as running a red light.

The measure would make texting or using an electronic device while driving a primary offense for those under age 18. Teens could not use their cellphones, iPads or other electronic devices while driving unless there’s an emergency.

Minors could be fined $150 for the first offense and have their license suspended for 60 days. Repeat offenders could face a $300 fine and get their license taken away for a year. Teens could have hands-free GPS navigation devices, but they couldn’t use other electronic devices unless an emergency arises, or the vehicle was stopped and off the roadway.

The Ohio Fraternal Order of Police supports the legislation. However, the group’s president has said the organization would have preferred that texting be a primary offense for all drivers because it would have been easier to enforce.

“You’re asking a law enforcement officer to determine at 30 mph whether someone is under 18 or not, so that’s a challenge,” said Jay McDonald, Ohio FOP president.

Still, McDonald said the measure is a good first step in cracking down on the problem of distracted driving among teens. “That’s who we think are the most vulnerable drivers,” he said.

Current prohibitions:
  • No statewide limits on cell phone use or text messaging.
  • Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus, Delaware, Belpre, Berea and Zanesville are among the many Ohio cities that have banned text messaging while driving (more cities below). The new texting law will not override local legislation that calls for stiffer penalties or enforcement.

Opponents of the Law

Of course, groups like the National Motorists Association love to argue from a reasonable position
that "preemptive laws that make otherwise innocent harmless acts illegal" are already too plentiful in the United States. Here is basically what the NMA says:

* First, It is foolish if not dangerous to try and convince people that making talking while driving illegal "will eliminate the possibility that this act will lead to another, actually harmful act."

* Second, that the idea is popular in certain circles because a ban on cell phone use while driving is easier to enforce than laws intended to combat all forms of distracted driving, which "eliminates the need for exercising thoughtful discretion and reasoned judgment. The issue appears black and white. That the cell was causing no harm and endangering no one does not have to enter the decision making process." ("Don't Ban Driving With Cell Phones, U.S. News and World Report, April 27 2012)

The best way to address the problem, says the National Motorists Association is "through efforts to educate the public" on the dangers associated with not paying attention while driving. "Reinvesting public resources, that are now invested in 'speed kills' campaigns and related enforcement excesses, into education and public relations efforts focused on inattentive driving would be a far more productive use of these funds," the Association says on its website.

I see the logic of the NMA, and I appreciate the value of educating the public about all risks and hazards. If only people would dedicate time to bettering their lives and the lives of others through education and implementation, many nagging problems would be solved.

But, I am a realist. What really makes you buckle your seat belt religiously every time you take the wheel? I venture for most, like myself, the ever-present law looms much larger than the knowledge of risk. Do you even want to talk about the inevitability of risktaking by youth during the brain's formative years, which now research estimates to extend through the mid or even late 20s. If a law will save thousands of lives, I view that law as necessary legislation for the common good despite the inductive leap of a cell being a"likely danger."

I liken this kind of thinking to allowing a child to have an independent Facebook account free of restriction and free of regular, complete review by concerned parents. We shouldn't violate a twelve year old girl's right to privacy, should we? After all, the account will not necessarily lead to any dangerous behaviors and shifty friendships because the girl has been told (educated) by her parents about the risks, and Mom and Dad have banned this type of activity.

Give me a break. Young people extend boundaries, break rules, and exercise poor reasoning and judgment with predictable regularity. It goes with the adolescent territory. But, making sensible rules, searching, and monitoring a young person's activity is a parent's responsibility. Parents, by law, are responsible for their child's safety.

So, some opponents are going to say, "Well, if I check my daughter's Facebook account all the time, she will just fake it and start a new one, or she may even do something bad to get back at me." This is the old "try to make 'them' do something they don't like and they will do it on purpose" mindset. A parent must set fair standards and enforce them by explaining the benefits of following rules and the consequences of poor behavior. If a child insists on breaking rules of conduct, he or she will ultimately pay. This is sad, and it's called "hard learning by experience," but, for some, it is a necessity. The fact remains that the parents have been proactive while doing everything in their power to help their child avoid harsh consequences

Personally, I believe the Ohio law
should ban all cell activity while driving -- 
including talking on cell phones.
I don't believe the law, as written, 
is restrictive enough.

I've heard the argument that banning cell calls will lead to even more unenforceable laws. In other words, what about more laws that may ban common car activities such as eating while driving, lighting cigarettes while driving, applying makeup while driving, screaming at the kids while driving, playing the stereo/radio while driving, and fiddling with the GPS while driving? Where could it end?

To me, cell activity, period. That's the end, at least until something more dangerous comes along. I'm willing to risk some of the other distracting activities performed by those who practice stupid driving. I don't like any distraction, but I hope better education can stifle some of the lesser problems.

And, yes, I know your eyes don't "need" to leave the road for cell calls and some calling options, yet how about the occupation of your ears and your mouth and your brain? Can distractions to these parts of the anatomy lead to accidents and deaths? Please consider the reality of the dangers.

A survey done by Nationwide Mutual Insurance in 2007 indicated that 73 percent of drivers talk on cell phones while driving.  A study by a University of South Carolina psychology researcher featured in the journal, Experimental Psychology, provides a better understanding of why language – talking and listening, including on a cell phone – interferes with visual tasks, such as driving.

In two different experiments, associate professor of psychology Dr. Amit Almor found that planning to speak and speaking put far more demands on the brain’s resources than listening.

“We measured their attention level and found that subjects were four times more distracted while preparing to speak or speaking than when they were listening,” said Almor of the 47 people who participated in the experiment. “People can tune in or out as needed when listening.” ("Talking
Distractions: Why Cell Phones And Driving Don't Mix," ScienceDaily, May 31 2008)

In other research, University of Utah psychologists published a study showing that motorists who talk on handheld or hands-free cellular phones are as impaired as drunken drivers.
"We found that people are as impaired when they drive and talk on a cell phone as they are when they drive intoxicated at the legal blood-alcohol limit” of 0.08 percent, which is the minimum level that defines illegal drunken driving in most U.S. states, says study co-author Frank Drews, an assistant professor of psychology. “If legislators really want to address driver distraction, then they should consider outlawing cell phone use while driving.”

("Drivers on Cell Phones Are as Bad as Drunks," News Center -- University of Utah,, 2012)

Psychology Professor David Strayer, the study's lead author, adds: “Just like you put yourself and other people at risk when you drive drunk, you put yourself and others at risk when you use a cell phone and drive. The level of impairment is very similar.”

The researchers cited figures from the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association indicating that more than 100 million U.S. motorists use cell phones while driving. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that at any given moment during daylight hours, 8 percent of all drivers are talking on a cell phone.

“Fortunately, the percentage of drunk drivers at any time is much lower,” Drews says. “So it means the risk of talking on a cell phone and driving is probably much higher than driving intoxicated because more people are talking on cell phones while driving than are driving drunk.” The main reason there are not more accidents is that “92 percent of drivers are not on a cell phone and are compensating for drivers on cell phones,” he adds.

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