David Kirkpatrick

November 6, 2009

Texting and driving just don’t mix — even hands-free

An interesting blog post from Dan Ariely, a visiting professor at MIT’s Media Library on the “tiny irregularities” of texting while driving:

Sad story out in the New York Times describing growing concerns about texting while driving. In Britain, a woman was sentenced to a 21-month sentence after it was found that she had been texting while driving, which resulted in the death of a 24-year old design student. In many ways, texting while driving illustrates a case in which tiny, individual irrational decisions can accumulate and cause widespread suffering, not only for the individuals who are texting, but their unsuspecting victims. Unlike cases of drunk driving, in which the driver’s decision making abilities are impaired, drivers who text are at their full wits to wait until they’ve pulled over to check their texts, and yet in the process they routinely underestimate the risk they impose to themselves and others.

The professor was quite wrong, however, on one aspect of the issue:

… we can hope that cell phone companies are continuing to explore voice activation technologies that can read text messages aloud and also transcribe them from voice — thereby by-passing the problem altogether.

In researching web content I created for an insurance website, I came across this research that finds hands-free listening  to mobile devices is not much safer than hands-on cell phone use because the issue is the distraction of the usage, not merely taking eyes off the road ahead (all bold text my emphasis):

Five states currently ban the use of hand-held cell phones in favor of hands-free devices while driving. However, several studies have shown that there is little difference between the two when it comes to minding the road ahead. Both hand-held and hands-free devices involve listening. The act of listening is what distracts drivers from paying attention to the road. A study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University placed participants in a functional MRI scanner that allowed researchers to observe brain activity while the subjects “drove” on a computerized roadway. Without distractions, the area of the brain that lit up most was the area involved in spatial perception (knowing where you are and what’s around you). When the same subjects were tasked with listening to and correctly answering a series of questions as they drove, the area of the brain that lit up most was the area involving language comprehension, while activity in the spatial perception area of the brain decreased by as much as 37 percent. Multitasking places high demands on the brain.

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