A Scientific Argument for Cell-Phone Ban for Drivers

You’ve probably heard by now that the NTSB has recommended that states forbid drivers to use cell phones, whether hands-free or not. Here is a good AP article by Joan Lowy about what is known and not known about phone risk. She makes the excellent point that it’s harder to argue for a ban when highway fatalities keep falling — but that a falling death rate hardly means that cell phone use isn’t dangerous. (Off-topic but not too dissimilar: Americans are losing their taste for the death penalty, theoretically because it’s sometimes applied so haphazardly — but in truth it’s a lot easier to argue against the death penalty when the murder rate has fallen as dramatically as it has.)

In the AP article, Marcel Just of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon, puts in words why phones may cause a particular risk of distraction:

“When someone is speaking your native language, you can’t will yourself to not hear and process it. It just goes in,” Just said. Even if a driver tries to ignore the words, scientists “can see activation in the auditory cortex, in the language areas (of the brain). “

This would also explain why hearing someone else’s cell-phone chatter in public is more annoying than it ought to be.

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  1. Mitch says:

    By this logic, shouldn’t we outlaw car radios and cd players?

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    • Craig says:

      And talking to the guy in the passenger seat.

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      • Bree says:

        The article address adult passengers:

        But talking to an adult passenger doesn’t involve the same risk as a phone conversation, researchers said. That’s because passengers are engaged in the driving experience with the driver. If they see a danger, they’ll usually warn the driver. Passengers also tend to instinctually adjust their conversation to the level of traffic and other difficulties confronting the driver.

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    • David Leppik says:

      When was the last time the talk radio host asked you a question and *listened* for a response, getting increasingly agitated at your silence, while not noticing the look of intense focus on your face as you try to avoid an oncoming vehicle that’s swerving slightly out of its lane?

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      • Kevin says:

        But thats not what this article is arguing:

        “When someone is speaking your native language, you can’t will yourself to not hear and process it. It just goes in,” Just said. Even if a driver tries to ignore the words, scientists “can see activation in the auditory cortex, in the language areas (of the brain). “

        I’m sure your statement is true, but you setting up a strawman, not responding appropriately to why CD’s/radio should not be banned according to the logic in this article.

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    • Art says:

      I would argue that music occupies a different part of the language center than trying to hold a conversation.

      Most of the problem drivers that I see are holding a phone while trying to hold a conversation.
      Many of them look like they are trying to pat their head and rub their belly at the same time.

      God forbid they drop their $300+ dollar smart phone, then all bets are off as to whether or not they stay on the road let alone in their lane.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wada_test (Note under ‘Uses’)

      There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence using google. Esp comparing singing and converstation.

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    • Van Colombo says:

      We just listen to the music and the words but our brain doesn’t process it, since we do not have to respond to the song. Phone call is a duplex transmission where both party involves.

      Thus no fear continue listening to your favorites songs mate :-)

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      • Joel Upchurch says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • J1 says:

      Having installed one in my car, I think outlawing radios controlled by touchscreen would probably be a good idea; use of a touchscreen requires the user to devote an unsafe level of attention to it. As an alternative, you could require the touchscreen be disabled when the vehicle is moving, and force the driver to use steering wheel controls instead.

      On another note, somebody who thinks Americans (or,frankly, any other population; the fact that a country doesn’t have a death penalty doesn’t mean the population doesn’t favor it) are “losing their taste for the death penalty” needs a drug test. Ask Levitt to explain reversion to mean.

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  2. Bridget says:

    Also, we should outlaw carrying on any kind of conversation with passengers in your car.

    The article from CNN says that this applies to hands-free devices, but not to devices installed in the car by the manufacturer. Why the distinction? What is the difference there?

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    • David Leppik says:

      The distinction is that a passenger over the age of about 5 will stop talking when the driving gets difficult. The person on the other end of the phone can neither see the traffic/oncoming tree trunk nor notice the concentrated look on the driver’s face.

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      • Bridget says:

        I meant why the distinction between hands-free devices in general and those that were installed in the car by the manufacturer. (In the CNN article that was linked, it says that the former should be outlawed but not the latter.)

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      • Ryan P says:

        So, we just ban people from driving with small children then?

        (Besides, it’s not just when the driving is difficult that distracted driving becomes a potential problem/danger. At least some of the time, the lack of difficulty in driving fuels the distraction. Why not change the CD when I’m in regular, everyday traffic on a clear day. When I was 18, I ran off the road and ended up in a ditch while changing a cassette tape on a flat, West Texas road with no other traffic in sight, for example)

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  3. James says:

    Don’t know whether this should be filed under irony, hypocrisy, or willfull ignorance, but I find it amusing that the same people who claim they buy large, heavy SUVs and similar vehicles because of their supposed (but mostly illusory) safety are the same ones who want to keep unsafely yakking on their cell phones while driving them.

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    • caleb b says:

      We’ve done this before, but Sir Isaac Newton would declare that those larger vehicles ARE safer, for the driver of them.

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      • James says:

        And I’d argue that you’re misapplying Newton’s Laws to reach that conclusion. But even assuming that they are safer for the driver, they make everyone else less safe.

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      • caleb b says:

        James, – i conceded that they are only safer for the driver of the large vehicle.

        However, when you state that “they buy large, heavy SUVs and similar vehicles because of their supposed (but mostly illusory) safety ” – you are incorrect, they are safer, the NHTSA recognizes that they are safer, they have data backing that up. I’m guessing you do not.

        Check out table 2: Total Occupant Fatality Rates per 100,000
        Registered Vehicles by Vehicle Type and Size, 1997-2004

        In order of highest fatalities per vehicle type – 1) Compact Cars 2) Compact Trucks 3) Subcompact Cars 4) Midsize SUVs.

        Hate bigger cars for whatever reason you like. People drive like maniacs in them, the guzzle gas (driving up the price for everyone else), whatever….But you can stop with the claim that big vehicles are not safer, they are. Please cite evidence if you have proof to the contrary.

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      • James says:

        “Total Occupant Fatality Rates per 100,000…”

        There’s the problem. You’re just looking at OCCUPANT fatality rates. Look at TOTAL fatality rates – that is, how many pedestrians, cyclists, and people in other cars your SUV killed – and you get a different picture.

        Here’s a link to an interesting article: http://www.gladwell.com/2004/2004_01_12_a_suv.html See the table several pages down. And here’s a link to a detailed study out of Lawrence Berkley Labs: http://www.google.com/url?q=http://eetd.lbl.gov/ea/teepa/pdf/LBNL-55417.pdf&sa=U&ei=6YvrTtn6JozdiALShe3vAw&ved=0CBkQFjAE&sig2=TYP0JBzr03Vo7bqMH-blDA&usg=AFQjCNGLv-D_Itpzy-MDh_BwTo7l3HKf7A See in particular figure 3 (pg 14), and the conclusion (pg 14 & 15) that SUVs are not safer for drivers than cars, and are much more dangerous to occupants of other vehicles.

        It’s also interesting to note that the construction type has a big effect on safety. Body-on-frame designs are much less safe, both for drivers and occupants of other vehicles. (Fig 6. pg 18) Also worthy of mention is the fact that large pickups are the most dangerous of all, both to drivers and others. “The average 1-ton pickup kills about ten times more people in other vehicles than an average Camry.”

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      • Travis says:


        The data seems to have both fatality rate for crashes, and fatality rates for rollovers. Counting the rollovers in addition to the crashes, it seems that the Midsize SUV’s had the highest incidence of an occupant death. Unless the rollovers were countend in the previous sum, which would seem weird as it never stated that they were.

        It’s interesting, but putting more big cars on the road even at best provides a very ver minimal benefit to the driver of the SUV, yet it makes it less and less safe to drive smaller vehicles, and also makes it less efficient because the whole system needs to accomodate fight higher energy (higher mass) collisions because of larger vehicles.

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      • caleb b says:


        See my reply on the last page (comment 35 i think)

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    • Lars says:


      It should be copied twice and filed thrice, under irony, hypocrisy, and willfull ignorance.

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  4. Paul Kelly says:

    Shouldn’t you ban radios in cars then?

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  5. Steve Liesman says:

    Isn’t the economic argument more about perceived risks? It can’t be a coincidence that distractions to driving have risen in concert with the rise of the safety equipment and safety of driving. Look at the modern automobile: there are dozens of distractions from the road. People feel safer taking the risk, so they take them. I would argue that had these gadgets existed 20 years ago, they would never have been allowed in cars, or if so, wouldn’t have been used because the costs of screwing up were so great.

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  6. Mayuresh says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  7. Polk says:

    There is another question. How come professional drivers such as police drivers, and for that matter, pilots, manage intense conversation while they work? Do they have an increased accident rate? I would suggest it is possible to learn to process conversation in a way that does not distract. I doubt experience alone is enough. Radiotelephony skills are a significant part of a pilot’s training.

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    • James says:

      First of all, police drivers DON’T manage their conversations all that much better than we mere mortals do. There was a local case last year where a deputy sheriff hit & killed a cyclist because he was talking rather than driving: http://www.kolotv.com/home/headlines/Washoe_Co_Deputy_Sentenced_in_Fatal_Collision_with_Bicyclist_113093209.html

      Second, if you have any actual piloting experience, you’ll know that there are very few actual conversations going on. ATC communications are highly structured. In addition, most flying is far less demanding than driving: there are no other planes changing lanes a few feet away, no traffic lights, no kids or animals darting into the sky… And when you do run into one of the demanding bits of flying, you shut up and fly the plane.

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  8. caleb b says:

    So ban all of the following:

    CD Players
    Talking to passengers
    GPS Devices – they either talk or you need to look at them
    Drive Through Food

    Got it. OR we can recognize that the vast majority of fatal accidents are a combination of things that are mostly NOT connected to cell phones. In order Alcohol, Night, Weather, Excessive Speed. http://www.nhtsa.gov/

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    • James says:

      Or we could study all those things, in the same way as cell phone use has been studied, and discover that unlike cell phones, they create little or no driver distraction.

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