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Cell phones: the new drunk driving

By Jay MacDonald ·
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Posted: 7 am ET
Cell phones: the new drunk driving

Psychologists say banning hand-held cell phones while driving won't solve the problem.

Let me make a prediction: Our national addiction to talking on cell phones while driving will inevitably increase our auto insurance rates. What's more, efforts to limit cell phone use to hands-free devices while driving will have limited impact on either public safety or cheaper car insurance.

Allow me to explain.

Cognitive psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, authors of "The Invisible Gorilla," have found entertaining ways to document "inattentional blindness," our innate human incapacity to focus on two things at once. These guys famously marched a guy in a gorilla suit right through one of their experiments and most of their test group didn't even notice it.

Headline news: The human brain cannot multitask, even if our intuition insists we can.

"You hear people say, 'Oh, I drive better when I'm drunk.' But no; you just don't realize how distracted you are," says Simons. "The same thing happens with cell phones."

In fact, studies show that cell use while driving blurs attention and slows reaction time every bit as much as driving while intoxicated. Despite this, we tend to think it's benign, a non-issue, no different than chatting with a passenger or listening to the radio or the disembodied GPS voice.

But cell use is different because of the strong but subtle social demand to maintain the conversation.

"If you've ever been talking to someone and they suddenly stop talking, it's incredibly annoying," says Chabris.

"Right. If you stop talking, they don't know if you're angry at them or the call was dropped or what," adds Simons.

Because the person you're talking to isn't in the vehicle with you, "there's a really strong demand to prioritize the conversation," Simon says, which diminishes your attention to the road.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that nine states to date -- California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Utah and Washington -- and the District of Columbia have banned use of hand-held phones while driving. Even Oprah's No Phone Zone pledge grants a dispensation for hands-free calling.

The problem is, eliminating the hand-held phone won't eliminate the problem.

"The research is pretty consistent in showing that there is absolutely no benefit whatsoever from hands-free phones," says Simons. "The problem is in our minds, not in our hands."

Talk about an invisible gorilla. Won't someone please call our state legislators, preferably from a land line?

Eliminating hand-held calling does have one benefit: it makes it impossible to text. So far, 30 states have outlawed texting while driving.

My guess, it's going to take a national educational jihad on the order of drunk driving and seat belts to curb the carnage being caused by rolling with cell phones. Until then, more accidents inevitably will drive up auto insurance rates.

"People think it's possible to multitask and it really isn't," says Simons. "If the hands-free laws promote more talking while driving, then it can actually be worse."

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