Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cell phones in cars = death

A few years ago one of my best friends, a single mother of two sons, was driving near her home in New York state when another woman ran a red light and hit her broadside. The woman was talking on her cell phone and didn't see the red light nor my friend's car in the intersection.

My friend told me that she remembers thinking just before the impact, "My boys won't have a mother." Fortunately, although the driver squarely hit her side of the car and spun it around, my friend escaped with only minor injuries. Her car was totaled.

Today the New York Times reports that the U.S. government not only suppressed the carrying out of a proposed study into the risks of cell phone use while driving, but also suppressed releasing data from already conducted studies that clearly show how dangerous such behavior is. Notes the Times:

...the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, decided not to make public hundreds of pages of research and warnings about the use of phones by drivers — in part, officials say, because of concerns about angering Congress.

On Tuesday, the full body of research is being made public for the first time by two consumer advocacy groups, which filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for the documents. The Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen provided a copy to The New York Times, which is publishing the documents on its Web site.

In interviews, the officials who withheld the research offered their fullest explanation to date.

The former head of the highway safety agency said he was urged to withhold the research to avoid antagonizing members of Congress who had warned the agency to stick to its mission of gathering safety data but not to lobby states.

There's more:

The highway safety researchers estimated that cellphone use by drivers caused around 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents over all in 2002.

The researchers also shelved a draft letter they had prepared for Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to send, warning states that hands-free laws might not solve the problem.

That letter said that hands-free headsets did not eliminate the serious accident risk. The reason: a cellphone conversation itself, not just holding the phone, takes drivers’ focus off the road, studies showed.

Psychologists who have studied multitasking are well aware of the reasons for this. Conscious activities such as talking on a cell phone require us to use our brain's working memory, a sort of mental blackboard that we use to carry out conscious tasks. But our working memory capacity is very limited, and it is very difficult for us to do more than one thing at a time--especially tasks that require conscious attention, such as driving.

But really, pretty much everyone knows this intuitively. That's why those people who insist on their right to talk on cell phones while driving are engaging in highly irresponsible behavior, to the point that it becomes disregard for human life. Such people may be perfectly nice in other aspects of their lives, but on the road they are potential killers. All cell phone use while driving, including hands free use, must be banned. Like smoking in public places, eventually it will be. The only question is how many people have to die in the meantime.

Photo: The automobile of Joan D. Skupien, 40, killed in Suffolk, Virginia while apparently talking on her cell phone. Fortunately, she was the only victim./City of Suffolk


jqb said...

Calfornia's new law only bans in-hand use, and even then it has not been very effective, at least here in SB: I see drivers holding phones all the time ... especially when they aren't paying attention to me on my bike.

Anne Gilbert said...

Let me tell everybody here a story. Some years ago, I worked in a retail store. There was a nearby local espresso place where you could "hang out" before or after work, and get a nice cup of coffee or a latte. One day, I went in there before starting work. As I walked up the street, there was this woman yakking on her cell phone. I didn't pay much attention, until she entered the espresso place in line in front of me, still yakking on her cell phone. She yakked on her cell phone while ordering a latte or something, and continued yakking away while she waited. People were giving her dirty looks, while she, and they, waited, but she was completely oblivious. Some time later, I saw the same woman doing the same thing, in the store I worked at, this time to a fellow worker. I don't know whether the woman drove while yakking on her cell phone; I'm surprised she lived to come into the store if she did. She wasn't being "irresponsible" in this sense, but she was completely oblivious, didn't care who heard her (rather inane to me) conversation about whatever it was), but her lack of attention could, as you have pointed out, be fatal behind a wheel, when you need to remain alert, at the very least out of consideration for others on the road.

Michael Balter said...

Thanks for these comments. Anne's story reminds me of the the time I was on a Eurostar pulling out of London on its way to Paris, and one of the passengers (a professional woman in her 30s) called her insurance company to get travel insurance for her trip. She gave them all of her credit card details, loud enough for anyone in the railcar to write them down...

Anne Gilbert said...

I've never heard anyone stupid enough to read their credit card number in a public place, but I've heard enough inane conversations on cell phones(one some guy gave about getting his fiancee a bigger diamond takes the cake, IMO). If they do that in cars while driving, they're dead, and probably so are a lot of other people.

Cellular Philippine Phone said...

Well, I agree with you there, "Cell phones in cars = death" many people keep using cellphones while driving which leads to accidents, so its important that we avoid using our cellphones while driving. Anyway. I enjoyed reading your post. It makes a lot of sense. Thanks for sharing.


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