Hanging Up

It has been heartening to see the hard science of distracted driving getting such prominent attention, the latest of course being the New York Times coverage of the naturalistic truck study (and keep in mind that truck drivers are statistically safer than civilian drivers) by VTTI (which I look forward to reading in its entirety), followed by today’s announcement of proposed legislation for a texting-while-driving ban pegged to state highway funding. My only qualm with all the texting coverage is that it might push to the side the very real issue of cell-phone conversation while driving, which the cell-phone lobby and others would have us believe is not an issue — they of course don’t want to give up those minutes, those same minutes that preciously tick away as you sit listening to the horrible and lengthy prompts to leave messages.

But the idea of a legislative ban always brings up the issue of the difficulties of enforcement, and along those lines I have been wondering what alternatives (or supplementary tools) there might be to a legislative solution to the problem of wireless communication while driving.

A first thing to note is how much there is still learn about the process of attention while driving (not to mention attention itself!). I suspect that the rise of sensor-and-camera augmented large-scale naturalistic driving studies will be as important to the field of driver behavior as crash-tests were for the study of vehicle factors. And as physics was at the intellectual heart of that study, I think human attention is the central focus of this heretofore occluded inner world of the driver.

Paying attention while driving is a more complex notion than one might think. As driving becomes a well-practiced, automatic task, it demands less of our cognitive resources (except, of course, when something unexpected happens, then it may demand more than we expect or have available); very seldom are we devoting 100% of our care and attention to driving, in some hyper-idealized vigilant state (as, say, when I drove home from the hospital with my newborn daughter). As Peter Hancock has asked, “When we create a performance task that can, under the vast majority of conditions, be completed without the full attention of the individual involved, what happens to their residual attention that is then left untapped?” It drifts is what happens — we stare at a grain silo on the side of the road, we check the fuel gauge, we change the radio, and many of us make a call or send a text message. But there is, of course, a philosophical, perhaps ethical, distinction between an unintentionally distracted state such as “highway hypnosis” and a willfully induced, empirically demonstrated distracting external activity.

So what can be done? The obvious method would be simply not to do it, but this falls apart under various psychological mechanisms, like overconfidence and optimistic bias, the sort that are revealed in polls in which a majority of drivers say things like texting should be banned and yet in which a majority of drivers admit to having done it. Abstinence in phoning while driving, like “abstinence-only” sex education as a measure for combating teen pregnancy, is more effective in principle than reality.

A commenter in the earlier post on cell phone distraction makes an interesting point in this regard, however. As he notes, we can choose not to ourselves become enablers: “Consider that the cell phone conversation requires two people, at a minimum. I’ve taken a personal vow to not speak with a driver using a cell phone. When I speak to someone, I ask if they are driving and if the answer is yes, I ask them to call me back when they are parked, and I hang up. If someone places a call to me, I ask the same questions. I may not be able to influence lobbyists, and be part of the solution, but I certainly will not be part of the problem!”

This is an interesting point that I doubt few of us pay attention to: How is the conversation we have (as a non-driver) via phone with a driver potentially contributing to the reduced safety of that person, not to mention others around him? (Since I raised the issue of the moral imperative of not talking while driving). I have other reasons for not wanting to talk to people who are driving — namely, the conversation tends to be bad (fractured, slowed, filled with pauses, not really there). As a journalist I’ve always been able to tell when I’m speaking to someone who’s indeed driving, and then I politely ask to do a “real” interview later.

Morality is one substitute for law. Another is technology. I’ve been intrigued by a fledgling software app called ZoomSafer, which, when installed on various mobile devices, detects the user is in vehicular motion and sends back an automated reply, or allows the driver to send an automated text or email via voice. This is interesting, and laudatory in certain regards, but this is all very “carrot,” and the software is easily disabled by the user; which raises the question of why someone who wanted to text or call would enable the program to begin with.

But what is the stick? Any number of traffic safety initiatives have foundered on the well-meaning initiatives of educational campaigns, and behaviors only began to change with laws. Perhaps all it would take is a high-profile lawsuit against the manufacturer of a device, or the provider of wireless service, whose product was implicated in a fatal collision (I’m not actually sure this is legally possible, though it wouldn’t surprise if it were — from any lawyers out there I’d be curious to hear of possible precedents).

Reader Charles suggests another kind of technological fix: “Is anyone proposing regulation of cell phone companies providing a signal to a moving phone? It seems simple; cell phones communicate through towers which can detect if the phone is moving. Simply terminate the signal to a phone traveling over 20 mph or so.” I can already hear the reflexive response, which I hear with any proposal to somehow curb perceived driver freedom: But what if there’s an emergency? Try pulling over. Other potential technological approaches beckon on the horizon, with applications like the one at, which uses a “visual anchor” to ameliorate the negative consequences of the “ventriloquism effect.” To quote from the company’s (non-peer reviewed) study:

This study examined the effect on driving performance that a visual anchor acting as an auditory target produces in a subject using a cell phone while driving. The experiment was based on the hypothesis that the intrinsic nature of a cell phone conversation coupled with the necessity of “eyes on the road ahead” while driving frustrates the sound-source localization mechanism, resulting in a misallocation of finite mental resources.

This study indicates that a visual anchor used in conjunction with a cell phone while driving mitigates the cell phone’s negative impact among those tasks where the primary variant is attention and reaction time. However, the visual anchor did not mitigate the cell phone’s negative impact on situation awareness, as measured by short-term object memory, which is often considered indicative of driver performance. There is a contradiction between the measurable objective data and the participants’ subjective recall of road signs, speed limits, etc. This may mean that cognitive memory is less important to safe driving than reaction time and automatic driving behavior. It brings into question the assumption that impaired short-term.

I’m not a cognitive scientist, so I don’t know how valid any of this is. Perhaps the solution is the ultimate technological fix: To actually remove the human driver from the equation — since they don’t seem all that keen on actually driving — via fully autonomous vehicles. Maybe someday we will laugh — humans wasted all that mental energy on driving?

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 30th, 2009 at 11:30 am and is filed under Cars, Cities, Traffic Culture, Traffic Laws, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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July 2009

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