Distracted Driving Laws Are Expanding, But Many Still Miss the Point

(The point is the limits of mental multitasking.)
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(The point is the limits of mental multitasking.)


On Tuesday, Florida became the latest state to make it illegal to text while driving. AAA calls it a “good start” for the state, which had 85 fatal car crashes caused by distracted driving from 2010 to 2011, according to The Palm Beach Post. But Florida’s version of the ban actually leaves a lot of leeway for cell phone use in the driver’s seat.

It’s still legal for you to text at a stop light or while stopped in traffic, for instance. It’s only a “secondary infraction,” meaning, it won’t get you pulled over if it’s the only thing you’re doing wrong—and if you do get pulled over, police officers can’t force you to hand over your phone for them to see when your last text was sent. If you do (somehow) get caught, the first offense will cost you a measly $30. Finally, aside from texting, talking on the phone while driving is still totally legal.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” state representative Irv Slosberg told the Post, speaking of a state that only just enacted a law in 2009 giving cops the authority to pull someone over and give them a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt.

According to Distraction.gov, 41 states, D.C., and Guam ban texting while driving; 11 states, D.C., and the Virgin Islands ban all cell phone use. Most other states’ distracted driving laws are not as lax as Florida’s. Most are primary laws, allowing cops to pull drivers over for phone use alone, and many have more stringent rules specifically for new drivers, young drivers, and bus drivers.

Texting while driving is generally considered more dangerous than talking—despite how quick a text is, compared to an entire phone conversation. Distraction.gov explains why:

Texting is the most alarming distraction because it involves manual, visual, and cognitive distraction simultaneously. Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds. At 55 mph, that's like driving the length of an entire football field, blindfolded. It's extraordinarily dangerous.

Extraordinarily dangerous, yes—in fact, it’s even more dangerous than drinking. A Car and Driver Magazinedemonstration in 2009 showed that drivers who were writing or reading on their phones (variables: Samsung Alias, Apple iPhone) were much more impaired and had considerably slower reaction time than drivers who were legally drunk (variables: orange juice, Smirnoff).

So what if we put the phone down, but we still don’t disconnect? Many states that outlaw texting and hand-held phone calls do allow hands-free conversations, through Bluetooth-type devices or in-car speaker phone systems. But study after study has shown that hands-free doesn’t equal distraction-free.

A AAA study this summer found that drivers talking on hands-free devices were twice as distracted as those who weren’t, and drivers using new speech-to-text technology that let them dictate texts or emails were three times more distracted. The technology required a level of concentration from them that caused a kind of “tunnel vision,” where they weren’t taking in enough visual information from their surroundings.

The findings of a 2008 Carnegie Mellon study are pretty well summed up in its title: “A decrease in brain activation associated with driving when listening to someone speak.” There are very real limits to the human brain’s ability to multi-task. More specifically, as the study describes, “there is a fundamental constraint that limits the ability to drive and process language at the same time.” Driving and active listening share a spot in our brain, and this spot is small enough that it gets crowded pretty quickly.

All this is not to say that we can expect to see movements toward legislating NPR-while-driving, or conversations between passengers, any time soon. Passive listening (radio, book on tape) does not seem to have the same impairing effects as voices you are actively engaging with and responding to. And talking to someone else in the car does not seem to be as difficult for our brains as talking to a disembodied voice. The authors of the Carnegie Mellon study say that more research on this last point would be helpful, but they make the following important point:

[T]alking on a cell phone has a special social demand, such that not attending to the cell conversation can be interpreted as rude, insulting behavior. By contrast, a passenger who is a conversation partner is more likely to be aware of the competing demands for a driver's attention and thus sympathetic to inattention to the conversation, and indeed there is recent experimental evidence suggesting that passengers and drivers suppress conversation in response to driving demands....

The study didn’t weigh in on what the impact would be of a having a particularly inconsiderate, or oblivious, or otherwise overly-demanding conversation partner as a co-pilot. But the essential takeaway, from this and a multitude of other research, is that texting and hand-held phone bans only partially address the problem of distracted driving. When it comes to safe, focused driving, your hands and your eyes are only part of the equation: the most important part of the equation is, of course, your brain.