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Hands Free or Hands Off: The Cell Phone Dilemma

Last week I caught the last few minutes of an interview on Fresh Air with Matt Richtel, a technology reporter for the New York Times. Richtel won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his series of articles, “Driven to Distraction,” about the dangers of driving while multitasking with cell phones and other digital devices.

What Richtel said really got my attention because I do occasionally use my hands-free phone while I’m driving. I’d also just seen Oprah talk about her “No Phone Zone Pledge.” She’s asked people to sign a pledge that they won’t text or use their cell phones while driving. So far about 350,000 people have taken the pledge.

Talking on a Cell Phone

According to Richtel, driving while texting or talking on your cell phone is the “most powerful manifestation of distraction. Science is finding that it’s riskier to talk on a cell phone, even with a hands-free device, while driving than it is to talk to a passenger in your car.”

Why is it different if you’re talking on a cell phone than to somebody who’s in the back seat or the front seat in the same vehicle?

You can’t process two streams of information at a time, says Richtel. “If you’re engaged in a phone conversation, even if both hands are on the wheel, you’re processing a stream of information. Most times, you can get away with that because driving turns out to be a fairly rote experience. But if something comes into your field of vision, if a kid walks into the roadway unexpectedly, if a car swerves into your lane, you have forfeited milliseconds of crucial time to make decisions that would’ve allowed you otherwise to react.” While researching his articles, he found many examples of tragic accidents and head-on death collisions that would not have happened if a person hadn’t been on a hands-free phone.

Talking to a Passenger

Now, how is talking on a cell phone different from talking to a passenger next to you? Richtel says, “It turns out, when you’re sitting next to someone in a car, that person helps your safety, the research shows, by acting as a second set of eyes. They watch the roadway. They modulate their conversation, both topic and tone, based on what they see in front of them. They tend to get more quiet when the weather gets bad. So rather than being a detractor, like someone on the phone who can’t see you or your conditions, they’re an advantage.”

His argument was so convincing that when my cell phone rang a few minutes after the interview, I  told the person I was driving and couldn’t talk and that I’d call her back. I took my first step toward pledging not to use my cell phone while driving.

I invite you to make a change, too. The next time you’re behind the wheel of your two-ton vehicle and feel compelled to check your device or answer that call, remind yourself that a millisecond can cause a tragic accident.

2 thoughts on “Hands Free or Hands Off: The Cell Phone Dilemma”

  1. This is the best explanation I’ve read of why using a cell phone is dangerous, even if you are in hands-free mode. I remember a time I pulled over to take a phone call, and a neighbor stopped to make sure I was okay. When I told her I had pulled over to take a call, she laughed and laughed. It turns out that the laugh is on her and other cell phone users. You really can’t talk and drive without running unconscionable risks.

  2. My big vote is for HANDS OFF! I keep reliving a horrible moment when my 8 months pregnant daughter was rear-ended – TWICE – by guys on cell phones.

    Thanks for bringing this critical issue to our attention and for inspiring me to sign Oprah’s petition.

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