Continuing with this important message about safety while driving (featuring cell phone use), the National Safety Council is using the final week of National Safety Month to focus on the theme: On the Road – Off the Phone!  Yesterday, we gave statistics that involve crashes on U.S. highways, many attributed to distracted driving, and that distracted driving has been added to the top leading factors in fatal and serious injury crashes, along with alcohol and speeding.  Using a cell phone while driving can be a serious distraction. 

Drivers must understand the full impact of driving while talking on cell phones with either handheld or hands-free phones.  We want to explain how cognitively complex it is to talk on the phone and drive a vehicle at the same time, and why this drains the brain’s resources.  We like to think of ourselves as being able to “multitask” in today’s society.  Even though you may complete a phone coversation while driving and arrive safely, you did not “multitask” and you did not accomplish both tasks with optimal focus and effectiveness.

Our brains cannot perform two tasks at the same time.  The brain handles tasks sequentially, switching between one task and another. Yes, they can juggle tasks very quickly, which makes us think that we are doing two things at the same time.  However, we are switching attention between tasks, doing only one at a time.  The brain has to decide what to pay attention to.  This is known as “attention switching.”  When you are talking on a cell phone while driving, your brain is dealing with divided attention.  You may be more interested in the conversation than the warnings of navigation and safety hazards.  You may be so involved in the phone conversation that you fail to see a red light or stop sign, until it is too late. 

According to Barry Kantowitz, Director of University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, thinking about a conversation requires mental capability made for safe driving.  He doesn’t hold out much hope for hands-free devices because they tend to reduce the amount of concentration required to process a phone conversation.  University of Kansas psychology professor, Paul Atchley states, “hands-free devices are only safer under very limited circumstances”.  In his work, hands-free devices show a reduction in attention in drivers 20-years-old, to the same attention level they see in many 85-year-old drivers.

We think it’s easy to talk on a cell phone while taking a walk, but even then your judgment can be impaired.  If that’s the case, think how much more responsibility you should show when you are behind the wheel.  Listening to music does not result in lower response time, according to studies.  But when the same drivers talk on cell phones, they do have a slower response time.  Loud music, however, can prevent drivers from hearing sirens and other warnings they should be alert for.

These articles are meant for drivers of every age.  It is our hope that thinking about this will keep yourself and others on the road safer.  I see mothers driving down the streets with little children in the back seat,  but they are more engaged in texting and talking on the phone.  All of us can name an incident where there was a sign of inattention by a driver, (even a close call!)  I know someone who can’t seem to talk while driving without turning to address her audience in the back seat.  We can all make a list of things that shouldn’t be done while driving, let me go first! 

But this week’s focus is on leaving the cell phone off while driving.  This is not too much to ask of anyone.  It would be great, if technology could do it for us; then we wouldn’t have to trust each other to do the right thing!   Please drive safely!  Remember, you must pay attention to the other guy, as well as yourself.


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