Message sent: don’t text while driving

  • 17-Nov-2009 10:33 EST
John Lee - MCM resolution.jpg

“Texting is sort of the perfect storm that brings together intense visual demands, intense manual demands, and also intense cognitive demands as you maintain the conversation,” said Dr. John Lee, a Professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Patrick Ponticel

Although the engineering/technology community has and will have a large impact regarding the problem of driver distraction—with that impact having negative and positive poles—it’s the vastly larger community of typical drivers who will determine whether the problem grows or abates.

The problem of distracted driving can disappear if everyone behind the wheel decided to make operating the vehicle priority number one at all times, just as drunken driving could disappear if everyone decided to abstain from drinking alcohol before driving. But not everyone always conquers pride, selfishness, and whatever other human forces spur reckless behavior. To expect every driver to make operating the vehicle top priority at every moment is unrealistic. But it is something experts in the field believe every driver should strive for.

A large number of those experts appeared in Washington, D.C., at a Sept. 30 conference on distracted driving held by the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) to great effect in terms of media coverage and pollination of the idea that no one should take distracted driving lightly. “I don’t know that there’s a more important meeting at the U.S. Department of Transportation,” DOT Secretary Ray LaHood said in his conference-opening remarks in which he described distracted driving as an epidemic.

Among the points of consensus among the experts who followed him to the dais—and among the public at large, according to several recent studies—is that texting is a particularly dangerous behind-the-wheel activity. (It was noted during the conference that as dangerous as texting is, it is not necessarily the most dangerous activity.) Another point of consensus was that education and law enforcement each have an important role to play in mitigating the problem.

“We need a combination of strong laws, tough enforcement, and ongoing public education to make a difference,” LaHood said. Possibly by design, he did not include technology as a factor in his equation for a solution.

In fact, one of the dichotomies pointed out during the conference was that technology is part of the problem and, perhaps to a lesser extent, part of the solution. Though a technological marvel, the cell phone is a problem in that it can be used while driving; LaHood noted that on any given day last year, more than 800,000 vehicles were driven by someone using a handheld. On the other hand, some companies offer technologies that prevent cell phones and other communication devices from being used while the car is in motion. To the extent automakers engineer their vehicles to be amenable to use of handheld devices, they may be considered part of the problem. But they also can be considered part of the solution by offering technologies that allows hands-free operation of cell phones and other electronic features otherwise operated by hand.

On the latter point, however, there is not total agreement because while voice technology does allow the driver to keep eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, mind on the road is a different matter. Several speakers and audience members cautioned against promoting hands-free communications technology; they said that although it may be safer than handheld in terms of manual distraction, it is a dangerous cognitive form of distraction. Moreover, some warned, many people tend to see the hands-free vs. handheld discussion as a good vs. bad debate; and so if the message sent is that handheld is bad, many will assume that hands-free is good, where in reality neither qualifies as good.

In his presentation, Dr. John Lee, a Professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained that there are three categories of distraction: visual, manual, and cognitive. Each driver activity that is secondary to operation of the vehicle falls under one or more of those categories. Hands-free phone use also falls under all three, greatly affecting cognitive functioning but hardly registering in the categories of visual and manual distraction. Texting falls under all three in large and roughly equal amounts.

“Texting is sort of the perfect storm that brings together intense visual demands, intense manual demands, and also intense cognitive demands as you maintain the conversation,” Lee said.

While texting was called out by him and others as the main culprit among handheld devices, Lee said “the most insidious form of distraction is where the role of the person behind the wheel shifts from that of being the driver to that of being a mother taking care of the kids in the back seat," or of a "diner" having an in-car meal, or any other role that redirects in a serious way one's attention from the driving task.

Even though some people believe they are especially gifted at multitasking, past and current research is clear that doing two things at once tends to undermine performance in one or both, Lee said. "That is the central message that I’d like to convey."

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, dropped in for remarks at the conference, making a case for his bill that would withhold federal funding from states that do not adopt measures to outlaw texting while driving.

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