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A new study says even voice-activated texting and hands-free phone calls are distracting when you’re behind the wheel. The electronics association disagrees, but has its own answers for safer driving. Tech Tuesday explores cognitive distraction and “inattention blindness” for drivers, and examines guidelines for automakers and apps for consumers to help reduce distracted driving.
- David Strayer Professor of Psychology, University of Utah
- Laura Knapp Chadwick Senior Manager of Government Affairs, Consumer Electronics Association
- Justin Berkowitz East Coast Bureau Chief, Car and Driver
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. It seems logical if it's distracting to dial a number and hold your cellphone to your ear while you drive, then using a hands-free phone should be better. And if it's distracting to type a text message from behind the wheel, then dictating a message through voice-activated control should be OK.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut a new study finds that even these seemingly driver-friendly features are distracting and can cause you to see but not really register what's happening on the road. The study presents the latest research into what happens in your brain when you try to drive and use your gadgets at the same time, whether they're in your hand or built-in to the dashboard of the car. Federal data show that two years ago, distracted driving was responsible for 3,000 auto deaths and 300,000 injuries and car crashes.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining me for this Tech Tuesday discussion about the causes and possible solutions for distracted driving is Laura Knapp Chadwick. She is senior manager of government affairs with the Consumer Electronics Association. She joins me in our Washington studio. Laura Knapp Chadwick, thank you for joining us.
MS. LAURA KNAPP CHADWICKThanks for having me.
NNAMDIJoining us from the studio at KCPW in Salt Lake City, Utah, is David Strayer. He's a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. David Strayer, thank you for joining us.
PROF. DAVID STRAYERThanks. Good afternoon.
NNAMDIWe -- you can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Do you talk on your cellphone while you're driving, handheld or hands-free? Have you ever sent a text message while you're driving? 800-433-8850. Or send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday. David Strayer, I'll start with you. You set out to see whether hands-free phone calls and voice-activated texting are distracting for drivers. Explain how you set up that test and how you measured distraction in your drivers.
STRAYERSure. Well, we were interested in trying to understand if people become mentally overloaded while they're doing various activities, whether eyes are on the road and their hands are on the wheel. So there's nothing about taking your eyes off the road. It's mainly something about the mental overload from dealing with different kinds of technologies.
STRAYERAnd we looked at eight different kinds of activities that people do from listening to the radio to talking to a passenger to talking on handheld or hands-free cellphone and then some of the more current kinds of voice messaging kinds of things where you might actually send and receive emails or texts totally by voice.
STRAYERSo the message should be read to you by a computer, and then you'd reply just with a voice, without having to type in anything in. We studied people when they were either in a driving simulator so we could carefully control and measure everything. But we also had a portion of our study where people were out on the roads, and we measured how well they drove and did those same kinds of activities while they were driving on the streets and residential sections of Salt Lake City.
STRAYERAnd the question was: Are there differences between listening to the radio and kind of send a text message via speech-to-text-based technologies. And, you know, the answer we've found was that there clearly are. There are some things that just don't seem to lead to a high level of mental overload, listening to the radio like a broadcast like you're listening to right now, turns out not to have a high level of cognitive distraction.
STRAYERBut some of the technologies, especially some of the new speech-to-text types of systems where you're composing a text message or an email message and then sending it and our system was one that was error free. Many of the systems that people are probably familiar with where you use a smartphone to send or receive text messages currently have -- don't have perfect speech recognition.
STRAYERWe built a system that did specifically so we could say what happens if we finally get our technology perfect, what will be the mental overload be or mental workload be for a driver in those situations? And what we found was that that was a significant, you know, notch up relative to what we typically see even with someone who's distracted by using a cellphone. So with...
NNAMDISo if Siri on my iPhone actually understands every word I say without me having to repeat it, I can still be distracted. What happens in the brain when we try to watch the road and talk on the phone at the same time? What is inattention blindness?
STRAYERYeah. Inattention blindness is a situation where a driver has his eyes on the road, but they just don't see something that's right in front of them. They might not see a pedestrian. They might not see a traffic light. It's caused because attention has been diverted from driving. And even though you're looking at the road, you're just not paying attention to what you see.
STRAYERYou can see a signature in the brain that's associated with this kind of reduced attention to the driving input. And so the reason you don't see something and you don't scan as well is because the brain is occupied by some other mental activity, be it talking on a phone or trying to interact with some of these more sophisticated speech-to-text systems that just competes with being a safe driver.
NNAMDIYou're listening to a Tech Tuesday conversation on distracted driving. In our Washington studio is Laura Knapp Chadwick. She's senior manager of government affairs with the Consumer Electronics Association. Currently, we're talking with David Strayer. He's a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What electronic device or feature would you ban for drivers?
NNAMDIYou can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. David, 11 states, including Maryland, but not Virginia and District of Columbia, prohibit talking on handheld phones while driving. But you've found that any phone conversation behind the wheel can be distracting. What does that mean for these laws?
STRAYERWell, you're right that there were some intuition by lawmakers that if I just made people use a hands-free system will be safer, and that turns out not to be what the science says. The studies that have tried to compare handheld and hands-free cellphones say that they're both mentally distracting and that they impair the ability to be able to react quickly.
STRAYERSo brake reaction times are slowed, and you miss critical events. So even though there are a number of states in the United States that have tried to move towards a hands-free policy, that's not necessarily going to be any safer because in both cases, the brain is occupied by that conversation.
NNAMDILaura, you have some concerns about the way this study was conducted. You've pointed to a different study at Virginia Tech. Where do you look for the science on distracted driving?
CHADWICKSure. So CEA has a strong and longstanding commitment to safe driving. I just want to establish that fact. We're completely committed to the principle that safety is paramount, and the driver's highest priority must be the safe control of the vehicle at all times. That being said, CEA, we agree with the U.S. Department of Transportation that believes that -- excuse me -- naturalistic settings of driver behavior are the best way to evaluate crash risks caused by distracted driving.
CHADWICKSo last week in response to the release of this, Dr. Strayer's study, we just wanted are raise some reasonable questions about the study's methodology and its broad conclusions about distracted driving.
NNAMDIJoining us now from studios in New York City is Justin Berkowitz. He is East Coast bureau chief of Car and Driver magazine. Justin, thank you for joining us.
MR. JUSTIN BERKOWITZThank you for having me on.
NNAMDIJustin, at first, the concern was about the distraction of using your cellphone while you're driving. Now, automakers are building electronics into the dashboard of the car from navigation systems to entertainment systems to voice-activated texting. What electronics comes standard in most new cars today?
BERKOWITZIt really depends on the car and the price category. Of course, something that's $80,000 is a bit different from something at 15,000 or 20,000. But we're seeing almost wholesale adoption of Bluetooth being a standard feature which allows for hands-free calling. And depending on the car, perhaps some other hands-free control. And navigation features and what are called often infotainment systems which include some access to other types of radio and various other features are also becoming less expensive options, if not standard.
NNAMDIDavid, you mentioned this earlier, but I'd like you to reiterate it about why listening to the radio in the car is different from carrying on a phone conversation.
STRAYERIt looks as if the mental activities associated with carrying on a conversation or interacting with some kind of speech-based system put a heavier mental load. It's more of an active generation of speech and trying to get things so that they sound right. If I'm listening to the radio, I don't have to -- I'm more passively taking in the information without having to kind of generate some kind of a response.
STRAYERSo when we've done studies with psycholinguists trying to understand it, it seems as if there's something special about generating speech and generating speech in a particular way that turns out to be very mentally distracting or very mentally loading. And if you try and do those activities, you can actually end up, you know, impairing the driver, but that doesn't happen. Obviously, if you're not talking back to the radio, so most people aren't, anyhow.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Speaking of talking back to the radio, allow me to go first to what seems to be my guilty conscience. Here is Christy in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Christy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISTYHi. Thank you. Yeah. I've been very interested in this whole topic since, oh, over 10 years ago, when I read the first study that had been done by the University of Utah -- I believe it was by the same person that's sitting this afternoon -- and I was very concerned that even dealing with WAMU when I was there as a volunteer and was taking calls for people giving donations. And the first call I get is someone that's on a cellphone, and I was actual really upset by this.
CHRISTYI could just imagine that that person is going to drive off the road, kill some people, and I'm on the phone with him, taking money so -- for this cause. But I was wondering at the time I also had a conversation back and forth after that with WAMU lawyers about them encouraging people to call in on their cellphones while driving to report accidents and that sort of thing. I'm wondering if that policy is going to change or if it has changed from when that lawyer told me that there was no hazard associated with either hands-free or handheld cellphones.
NNAMDIAs I said, that is my guilty conscience on the air. Christy, as far as I know, I don't know what the lawyers have ruled in this situation. I do know that our host Diane Rehm often asks people to pull over before they talk on their cellphones. It's something that I used to do once in a while. I must admit I have not done it in a very long time, and I can give you no good reason why I have not done it in a very long time.
NNAMDIBut given what we're hearing here today, then obviously it would be advisable if people who are calling in on the show it seems it would be advisable for you to pull over and park or stop before you talk on the phone because you can be distracted. But in terms of what the legal policy is here, Christy, I'm going to have to look into that and find out for you. But thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Liz in Alexandria, Va. Liz, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LIZHi. Thank you. I was curious if in the study -- because they said that the problem was the phones and the text was the interaction. And did they study comparing it to passenger conversations?
NNAMDIDavid, is it more or less distracting for the driver to talk with someone sitting in the passenger seat versus someone talking someone on a cellphone?
STRAYERAgain, it depends on what the passenger is doing. So in some of our studies, including the one that we reported just last week, the passenger really wasn't able to help out. And in that case, there really is no difference between a passenger conversation and a cellphone conversation in terms of their mental workload. However, in other studies where we've actually -- where the driver -- or the passenger can help the driver out by pointing out hazards or reminding them where they need to go, you see that passenger conversations are really not distracting.
STRAYERSo what happens is, really, if the passenger helps out the driver, then they compensate for the mental impairments of the conversation and really end up not showing some kind of impairment to driving. It, you know, I mean, it's the same kind of thing you see with teens who haven't quite learned the rules of the road so they don't stop talking when you to get kind of rough sections of the road. And so we see that crash risk when you have two teens in the car is quite high.
STRAYERBut for two passengers who are adults, who are paying -- the passenger and adults were in the vehicle, if they're both paying attention to the road, you actually don't see safety impairments. So the short answer is it depends a little bit on what the passenger does and if the passenger is not sensitive to what's going on in the road, then that conversation will be just as impairing as a cellphone conversation.
NNAMDIIndeed. We got an email from Andy, who says, "The difference between talking on the phone and to a passenger in the car is that there is another set of eyes when someone else is in the car. How many times has your passenger called your attention to something happening, telling you traffic is stopping in front of you?"
NNAMDIThis is true. But, Laura, in the early days of radio, people said radio didn't belong in the car either. I read way back in 1920, Massachusetts wanted to pass a law saying that carmakers couldn't install radios because they would lull the driver to sleep. What are the parallels between what was going on then and now in terms of car electronics?
CHADWICKWell, I'm so glad that you brought up that point. That was -- the Radio Manufacturers Association was the original association of the Consumer Electronics Association. And we do. We see a lot of parallels between the concerns -- the safety concerns in 1930 and the same concerns that we see today.
CHADWICKSo to my point that CEA has had a strong and long-standing commitment to safe driving, we pointed out that the radio in cars in 1930 could have a safety enhancing effect. It could keep drivers, instead of lulling them to sleep, keep them awake, keep them focused. And we share that same view today. We believe that in-vehicle electronics can enhance driver safety by improving situational awareness and focus.
CHADWICKFor example, the use of GPS navigation systems are much -- make a driver much safer than being lost or disoriented or those people who -- I'm sure we seen them -- people who use paper maps, who, you know, I find paper maps as very difficult to handle and follow. But GPS navigation systems, by their natures, since they're interactive, they're, you know, some of them speak to you. That is immensely helpful behind the road -- behind the wheel when you're on the road.
NNAMDIBack in 1930, they said the act of changing the station on your radio could be distracting to the driver. Today, we tend to think of that as ridiculous. We're going to take a short break. What do you think of as ridiculous today in terms of what distracts you or is alleged to distract you from driving? Give us a call at 800-433-8850. What does, in fact, distract you most when you're driving? You can also send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday. We're talking distracted driving. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on distracted driving. It's Tech Tuesday, and we're talking with Justin Berkowitz. He is East Coast bureau chief for Car and Driver magazine. David Strayer is a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. And Laura Knapp Chadwick is senior manager of government affairs with the Consumer Electronics Association.
NNAMDIYou can give us a call at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. First , you, David Strayer, and then you, Justin Berkowitz. Talk about the auto industry's reaction to these distracted driving studies. I presume they want their cars to be safe, but they also want to provide the features consumers want.
STRAYERYeah. I mean, I think we had some discussions with the -- a number of the auto manufacturers before the release came out in partnership with AAA. And we found that there was -- they were actually quite supportive of the research. They clearly do not want to put technology in the vehicle that's going to make the driver unsafe.
STRAYERAnd they recognize that there are certain kinds of things that may go into the car or may soon go into the car that actually may lead to high levels of cognitive or mental distraction, some of the kinds of things where you can update Facebook or post it -- post to Twitter or to send and receive emails or texts.
STRAYERSome of those things are mentally distracting and -- especially if they're air prone as in terms of just the voice recognition or the speech delivery. If it's not really, really high fidelity, then that even increases the workload higher. So it's clearly the case that, I think, the auto industry wants to try and make technology safe and wants to not put things in the vehicle that would somehow compromise the safety of the public.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Joey in Washington, who says, "This is not new information. The Navy did a study published in the newspapers at least 10 years ago. Navy pilots would forget steps in the landing sequence on aircraft carriers when the tower would engage them in conversation during landing. They would forget to do things like, oh, put the landing gear down. People have been eating while driving and putting on make-up both using their hands for years. It's never been about hands versus hands-free.
NNAMDI"It's about cognitive workload which is what the Navy established at least a decade ago. And, by the way, when are D.C. police going to start cracking down on this? I see people texting while driving every day in the District. A few months ago, I had to drive around a young woman at a stop sign because she was just sitting there reading her phone."
NNAMDIAgain, if you'd like to get in touch with us, send us an email to email@example.com or send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday. David, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issues guidelines for automakers about the safety of electronics installed in cars. The guidelines are based on how long your eyes are off the road when you're using one of the devices. What do the federal guidelines say?
STRAYERWell, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA has a three phase trying to deal with types of distraction. The first phase was looking at visual manual kinds of distraction, and the head guidelines or the voluntary guidelines that -- interacting some kind of technology shouldn't require you to take your eyes off the road for more than 2 1/2 seconds. And we completely think that that's a sound recommendation.
STRAYERWhat they have yet to address as part of their phase three dialogue is -- phase three guidelines would be some of the speech to text speech recognition, voice recognition kinds of systems that would potentially keep your eyes on the road but might be mentally distracting. And that's the research that we're doing.
STRAYERSo in a sense, the research we're working on right now is very relevant to where NHTSA will be going with their phase three recommendations. And there'll probably be similar to what phase two -- phase one was which is, you know, recommendations that try and improve the overall safety on the road by reducing either visual or cognitive distraction.
NNAMDILaura Chadwick, allow me to move to another subject. Do you think that Traffic Safety Administration will ever issue guidelines for handheld electronic devices that drivers bring in to the car themselves?
CHADWICKOh, I'm so glad you asked because today, I'm happy to announce that CEA will be convening a standards working group to look specifically at the distraction issue when it comes to portable electronic devices. And this group will develop engineering standards or indoor best practices. As a starting point, we're going to examine the standards that you just mentioned, recently finalized by the U.S. Department of Transportation for electronics installed in the car in order to assess their applicability to portable electronic devices.
CHADWICKWe're being really proactive here. We're taking a leadership position. This is what we do as an industry. This process will be an open process, and we welcome all stakeholders to the table.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Laura Knapp Chadwick, she's senior manager of government affairs with the Consumer Electronics Association. David Strayer is a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. He joins us from a studio, that's KCPW in Salt Lake City, Utah. We're encouraging you to join our conversation by sending us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday.
NNAMDIDavid, can you talk a little bit about the guidelines for automakers about the safety of electronics installed in cars? They're apparently based on how long your eyes are off the road when you're using one of these devices. What do the federal guidelines say?
STRAYERWell, I mean, what we know is that the increased risk for a crash goes up substantially if you take your eyes off the road for more than 2 1/2 seconds. And so they are guidelines, voluntary guidelines, but their guidelines are that if you're interacting with technology, you should be able to get that action done relatively quickly. And if it's going to take much longer than that, then we're going to know that we're going to start seeing some impairments in terms of being able to maintain control of a vehicle.
NNAMDIWelcome back to Justin Berkowitz. Justin, we lost you for a little while. Justin is East Coast bureau chief of Car and Driver magazine. Justin Berkowitz, can you hear me?
BERKOWITZYes, I can. And I promise I'm not talking to you from my car.
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for reassuring me. Justin, I want to go back to a question that I asked David earlier about the auto industry's reaction to the distractive driving studies. We're assuming that the auto industry wants its cars to be safe, but they also want to provide the features consumer want -- what consumers want. What do you say?
BERKOWITZWell, it is a balance. The first point of contact or primary point of contact for people with their cars is the radio system and any associated features with that, the same way they touch the steering wheel. You don't see the engine, but you do see and use that radio navigation system, whatever it is, and there is demand for that. People really don't want to be away from their phones.
BERKOWITZSo generally, what we hear from automakers is that this way, you can keep your hands on the steering wheel or you can keep your eyes on the road which are empirically true statements. Yes, you will still have your hands on the steering wheel if you use a voice control system. There's an implication that it's safer, and as Dr. Strayer would say, that may not be the case, and as others within the industry would say, they feel that it is safer.
BERKOWITZThere was a point though when automakers were a little bit more fervent. So Ford released its own study in 2011 that said, no, using voice controls is safer that holding a phone and is safer than looking down. And intuitively, that's seems to make sense. I am a big believer in more empirical studies.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Rick in Manassas, Va. Rick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICKYes, we've been talking about various devices that we can use in the car that distract us. But I remember, I've been driving for over 50 years, and I've gone through sometimes two and three traffic lights in moving traffic with no conscious awareness that I'm doing it. I'm busy thinking about something. I'm not listening to the radio. I'm not making a telephone call. I'm just absorbed with some thoughts. The next thing I know, I don't remember having gone through any of those intersections and yet subconscious drives the car.
NNAMDIWell, I suspect David Strayer might say the studies say you're either 16 or under or 65 and over. David Strayer, what do you say?
STRAYERWell, I mean, it is clearly the case. There is not a person I have seen who's drive -- driven who hasn't had the same kind of experience of kind of driving for some period of time and then going, wow, I was just -- where was I? I don't remember what I just did. That's kind of mind wandering. And clearly, in those situations, if there's an unexpected event, you are at risk of being involved in some kind of a crash.
STRAYERYou know, it's not like that safe, but we don't immediately run off the road. But if we have technology that makes that more likely to happen and potentially even more substantial impairment, because you're more engaged in that phone conservation or trying to craft an email than just kind of daydreaming, that's the concern that some of this newer technology and actually, that's the empirical evidence.
STRAYERI mean, you just can't rely on intuition to say this is distracting versus that. It's useful to kind of use the science, and that's really what we try to do is play -- create an open playing field and say, how does some of these technologies stack up? And some things like listen to an audio book or radio just aren't very distracting and don't seem to cause much in a way of cognitive or visual distraction. Other kinds of things, some of the newer technologies, they do.
NNAMDIRick, thank you very much for your call. Justin, earlier, we talked with David Strayer about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration guidelines for automakers, but those federal guidelines are not mandatory. However, many car companies comply with them anyway. Justin, why?
BERKOWITZThere are two important points here. The first is that the government did develop those guidelines with input from automakers, and they very closely, although not identically, follow voluntary guidelines in place by the Automobile Manufacturers' Industry Association for a number of years now. The reason that they are not mandatory has more to do with how NHTSA and the regulatory apparatus works in the U.S.
BERKOWITZAnd in short, for now, the technology is changing at a particularly high rate. And there are some questions about whether tests and assessments can be repeated again and again and again and get consistent results. And as a result, we can have something mandatory. But voluntary guidelines have quite a bit of teeth when it comes to NHTSA, and I wouldn't dismiss this as just a kind of voluntary, just threw a caution to the wind situation for automakers. They are paying quite a bit of attention.
NNAMDIWill the federal guidelines on built-in electronics in cars, in your view, ever become mandatory? What sort of testing would need to take place first?
BERKOWITZWell, the guidelines are well over 200 pages. They're may be 250 something pages long, and they include a lot of detail, and Dr. Strayer can probably add a lot of color to this, about how testing is done, the methodology for evaluation, how many seconds are the eyes away from the road, where are the hands, various degrees of hand placement.
BERKOWITZAnd some of that will become hashed out over the next few years as the technology becomes more common from car to car and as we start to get even more research, even more data, more experience with this and see which methods of testing work well, which don't. But I think we are heading towards a time when these will become mandatory and probably some other guidelines also.
NNAMDIYou know, what's interesting is that there are studies on driving, and there are also studies on consumer electronics, which brings me to Renville (sp?) in Alexandria, Va. Renville, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RENVILLEYeah. Hi, Kojo, and hello to your guests. Actually, I have no idea where 'cause it was years ago, but I encountered a study that indicate that perhaps people that plays video games avidly were able to sort of take in more information visually from multiple different sources. And I've kind of seen that substantiated over the years by the appearance of some websites that have sort of brain games that are supposed to be able to improve your focus.
RENVILLEAnd I was wondering if maybe this is possibly a learned skill that some people are better at than others. And the fact that there's so much of this technology out there being given to so many people that we've got a lot of people just jumping into the vehicle and trying to multitask to such an extreme degree, that maybe this is something that could be taught to people to actually reduce this issue.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, David Strayer?
STRAYERWell, he's actually hitting on a -- what is an active area of research in psychology, can we actually train multitasking skills? And there are clear layer is researched that shows that people who were involved in a lot of action video games are better at multitasking. What we don't know is, were they drawn those multitasking -- those video games because they started off with better ability to begin with, or did playing that somehow make them a better -- make them better at multitasking?
STRAYERAnd I don't -- and I think that the jury is still out on that. I think that there's probably evidence on either side. Clearly, people who are drawn to it probably have good abilities to begin with. But -- and when we've looked to see, for example, if extra practice somehow makes somebody a better cellphone user, we don't find that to be the case. And in fact, actually, we just looked at some a fairly large-scale study and found that the people who use the cellphone the most while driving tended to actually be the worst at doing it.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Renville. We move on to Steve in Washington, D.C. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
STEVEThanks for taking my call. Two brief questions and then I'll just listen off the phone. One, although both hands-free and hands-on technology are distracting, is there any data about whether there's a quantitative difference? And two, is there any data on eating...
NNAMDIIs there any data, David Strayer, on the distinction between handheld versus hands-free devices? Fascinating question.
STRAYERWell, I mean, I think the thing is that when we've looked at, for example, handheld versus hands-free cellphone conversations, we find the same level of mental impairment. That situation is where you've already gotten engaged in the conversation. So we're not talking about dialing or something, but just if you're holding a phone versus you're using Bluetooth, there's really no difference between the two. They're, you know, virtually identical.
STRAYERWe don't know so much about eating because, I think, there's, you know, it's probably the case that if you're eating something that requires you to take your hands off the wheel or if you're trying to look around for something, that's just going to just be, yet again, an example of the kinds of things that NHTSA's cautioning the automakers, that we should design technology that doesn't take our hands off the wheel or the eyes off the road, you know?
NNAMDIWell, what your study seems to suggest, David Strayer, is that if you look at actual accident statistics, that we will find that an equal number of people with hand-held devices were having accidents as people with hand-free devices, and I suspect a lot of people would find that difficult to believe.
STRAYERWell, so there's two studies that have been done that have looked at crashes and basically got the cellphone records and tried to figure out if someone was talking on the cellphone or not, if they're using a handheld or hands-free.
STRAYERThey didn't find any difference between handheld and hands-free. So the empirical scientific evidence says that mental distractions associated with both and the crash risk associated with both are equivalent.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you're trying to call, the number is 800-433-8850. What distracts you most when driving? What electronic device or feature do you think does not really hinder your driving? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Tech Tuesday conversation on distracted driving. We're talking with David Strayer. He's a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. Justin Berkowitz is east coast bureau chief of Car and Driver magazine. And Laura Knapp Chadwick is senior manager of government affairs with the Consumer Electronics Association.
NNAMDIIt springs into my mind that even as we talk about the differences or the lack thereof between hands-free and hand-held devices, that I guess the overwhelming majority of auto accidents that take place involve people who are not talking on phones at all. What, Laura Knapp Chadwick, are you looking at as the difference between people who are using these devices with the hands-held or held-free and people who are just driving?
CHADWICKRight. So NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, they have worked with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and done a number of what we call or what are called naturalistic studies, which look at drivers during the actual driving condition. They install cameras and other telematics devices that track these drivers over a course of time from 30 to 45 days, then have a team of researchers who look at that data.
CHADWICKIt's much different than a simulated environment because you can't think of every sort of instance that's going to happen on the road. So this is where you get the best data. And NHTSA has developed a scale of zero to infinity, trying to give a score to activities, much like Dr. Strayer's study.
CHADWICKNHTSA finds that just normal driving -- no distractions, not talking on the phone, not doing anything -- they've given that a score of one, and in the due course of their studies with Virginia Tech have found that talking on a hands-free phone actually rates a score of just slightly less than one, and talking on a hands-held phone rates a score of just above one. So relative difference. Pretty much lost in the wash there. So...
NNAMDIHow about the score you get for texting while driving?
CHADWICKWell, they have found in their studies that texting while driving is 23 times more dangerous than just normal driving. So there you have clear evidence that shows that one should not text while driving, and that's the public policy that have been adopted across states and is supported by CEA, that texting and driving should be outlawed.
NNAMDIYou're saying the evidence on hands-held and hands-free is not that clear, but this brings me to another point, David Strayer and Justin Berkowitz. Can you talk about the intersection of science and public policy? We set a numeric value on when a person has, oh, consumed too much alcohol to drive safely. Is there a way to do that with electronic distractions, as we just heard that they're trying to do? First you, David Strayer.
STRAYERWell, I mean, that's -- my job is to do the science and try and lay out exactly what the potential impairments are when people are mentally distracted or visually distracted. There's a number of other excellent researchers who use a number of different methodologies to try and do that. Then basically it's a public policy issue, and we have to have a debate about what we're willing to accept versus not in terms of driver impairment.
STRAYERAnd, you know, I mean, there are going to be people who may differ in terms of, you know, is a threefold crash increase something we want to, you know, say, we are not going to accept that or not. And so that, I think, is part of the dialogue here is to take the science and then translate that into some kind of public policy.
STRAYERBut with respect to things like hand-held versus hands-free cellphones, the science says that you're impaired at -- for equal -- at equal levels. And so here's an example. When we see a number of states that have said you can use a hand-held -- you can use a hands-free cellphone but not a hand-held cellphone, well, there's a disconnect between public policy and what the science tells us.
BERKOWITZI think Dr. Strayer, among his points, gets to one that I would want to expand on, which is a question of what society is just willing to tolerate. I mean, driving cars and riding in cars in general is unfortunately a very dangerous business, dangerous in relative terms, but it claims quite a few lives a year. So we'll make decisions as we go along about what we're willing to tolerate with this. We know that the optimal situation is that people pay perfect attention to the road, happen to have great reflexes, have no distractions, no radio perhaps, and this is a person that tends to be very alert anyway.
BERKOWITZAnd barring that ideal scenario, we make judgments from there. We might see some washouts, some kind of balancing effect from new technologies that really are purely safety-oriented with cars. Cars are much safer now than they used to be, whether that's because of air bags or better braking systems. But we also are seeing a lot of electronic driver aids, from radar and infrared use to detect when cars are nearby, like in a blind spot, to vehicles that will actually start to vibrate or notify you with a tone if you're drifting out of your lane.
BERKOWITZAnd that might balance out some of the effects of this -- it may not -- of -- if there is a danger of people talking on phones. And in that sense, people may say, all right, this is a trade-off that happens to be at the same time, and we're comfortable with that.
NNAMDIJustin, what safety considerations is the Traffic Safety Administration pushing automakers to consider, and what changes might we see as a result?
BERKOWITZWith respect to the phones and distraction -- distracted driving generally?
BERKOWITZYeah. So I think there has been a move away from anything that has the driver take their hands off the steering wheel and has them take their eyes off the road. And we'll continue to see a push in that direction, and the debate will happen about whether -- whose research tends to be more persuasive and what the -- NHTSA listens to.
BERKOWITZAnd I am in no way weighing in on kind of the value of research or the legitimacy of research. From anyone here, I'm not a statistician, and I'm not a psychologist. But what I can say is NHTSA will be looking at that as it develops. And in the meantime, the goal is really to just keep people focused on driving while not being overly draconian.
NNAMDIOn to Paxton in Washington, D.C. Paxton, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAXTONHi. How are you doing? Thank you very much for accepting my call.
PAXTONI have a question. I know that there's -- some of the technology I've heard about for driving and cellphone is that maybe they'll come up with a technology where when the car is moving, it'll make it impossible to make a phone call or the phone won't work or something like that.
PAXTONIf they do that, I mean, would they be able to differentiate between the driver's phone and maybe the passenger or someone in the backseat, or would they just be stuck at the mercy of the driver and can only use it when the driver...
NNAMDIWell, let me ask Laura Knapp Chadwick because some of the members of the Consumer Electronics Association are the ones taking their own steps to improve driver safety. They're developing apps and other products. What does -- and I think this is what our caller Paxton was talking about -- AT&T's DriveMode app do, and how successful is that company's It Can Wait campaign?
CHADWICKYes. So the DriveMode app when enabled and when a vehicle is moving at over 25 miles per hour, it automatically kicks on and sends a customized auto-reply message to incoming texts, letting your friends know that you're behind the wheel and reply when it's safe. It also has an option to send all voice calls to voicemail while the car is in motion. I've downloaded this app on to my HTC Android-powered phone, and it's great, automatically turns off when I'm like in the car. Just driving up here and got a message from my husband wishing me luck.
NNAMDIWell, how about the question Paxton raises? Paxton or I am sitting next to you in the car, we have our phones, we like to talk on the phones, we're not driving. How does that app affect us?
CHADWICKWell, if you're interacting with a phone and you, you know, you are a passenger and you have the DriveMode app, you are able to break through. It's -- it isn't a draconian measure. Especially here in D.C., so many people are taking cab rides. You definitely want to be able to interact with your phone when in you're in the backseat. So it does, as I said, allow that breakthrough. But there are also a variety of other technologies that are out there.
CHADWICKHardware like Audiovox's Car Connection, which is a device that physically connects to car's on-board diagnostic port, this is essentially a telematics device which collects information about the car and operator but -- through which integrated ZoomSafer technology. It can also restrict cellphone usage while driving.
CHADWICKThere's also Dock-N-Lock, which is -- requires that the driver's phone be docked and locked inside the Dock-N-Lock device before a car can be driven. So in those cases, if you're a passenger and your phone hasn't been integrated with these two devices then, you'd be able to freely use it. Our point is always that there are variety of technology solutions already available to consumers that mitigate distracted driving.
NNAMDIPaxton, thank you very much for your call. David Strayer, we got an email from Chelsea in Maryland, who says, "I'm 28 and I use my phone wirelessly while driving quite comfortably. However, the thought of my 60-year-old mother-in-law using the Bluetooth technology in her new car makes me shiver. Does age have an effect on a driver's ability to handle hands-free technology while driving?"
STRAYERWell, we just know that in general, there's an effect of age in terms of crash statistics and that -- and conveyed also in the distraction statistics as well. So some of the worst -- most risky drivers are teen drivers, 16, 17 years of age, who are just learning how to drive. And when they engage in multitasking one sort or another while they're driving, they're at -- in a much higher risk than people in their 20s and 30.
STRAYERAnd we also see as people to start to get into 65, 70 and so forth, if they're enticed into using some of these multitasking activities -- talking on the phone or so forth -- that they, too, have an increased risk of crashes. So the -- on either age extreme in terms of really young drivers and older drivers, they tend to be more impaired by some of this technology in terms of the attentional demands that are placed in -- by the use of that technology.
NNAMDII'm glad we're talking about age because, Justin Berkowitz, carmakers always want us to think our current car is obsolete and we need a new one. How are the automakers using built-in navigation entertainment and communication systems to further that goal and sell more cars?
BERKOWITZWell, I think cars like any consumer good have some planned obsolescence in them. And then there are also hardware and software limitations to keeping something looking fresh and new indefinitely. But they continue to add features, sometimes they are available through kind of an upgrade or retroactively and sometimes they're not. But this has become a big selling point for cars. I do just want to add on the topic mentioned before about whether certain features are locked out.
BERKOWITZThere are automakers that do lock out a lot of the functions of these systems navigation and phone. And otherwise, while driving, there's some technology that's not allowed as of now in the U.S. but has good promise for this. Mercedes-Benz and other companies have screens that look different from different sides. So from the driver seat, you wouldn't see what's going on a navigation screen, but a passenger would see crystal clear. And that might be one technological solution to keeping the driver focused but allowing these features to still be used by others in the car.
NNAMDIJustin, how seriously do the automakers take concerns about distracted driving? Do they conduct their own testing of distracted driving before green lighting electronic devices to install in their new cars?
BERKOWITZAbsolutely. And if you take the most cynical possible view, which is that all automakers are concerned about is money, and I don't think that's the case, but they are businesses. They all have legal departments, they've all been subject to class-action lawsuits, and that would be the most cynical view is that they would keep the car safe just to avoid getting sued. And obviously, there are interests that go far beyond that, like in (unintelligible)...
NNAMDIWe do live in a pretty litigious society, but go ahead.
BERKOWITZWell, we do. And bear in mind also that automakers have historically been the subjects of the some of the largest class-action lawsuits, manslaughter, product liability...
NNAMDIUnsafe at any speed. Yes.
BERKOWITZSo they're exposed to that. And this would be a particularly cynical view to say that's the only worry. And I don't think it's realistic but that is the bottom line that would still have them interested in keeping the car safe. So, yes, the answer to your question is it's definitely a concern for them. And they, too, are trying to find a balance.
NNAMDIHere is Eric in Washington, D.C. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERICSure. I'm a race driver and a high-performance driving instructor, so I get in the right seat of total stranger's cars on racetracks and try to teach them how to drive better, to be better drivers. And one of the big parts of that is how to effectively acquire information. When you're driving a car, it's a process of acquiring information, making decisions, guiding the vehicle, reacting or staying ahead of traffic. And the basic level of education that our drivers receive compared to the rest of the world is effectively nil.
ERICSo a huge help to this would be to create a new class of drivers who actually kept their eyes up. We're acquiring information at the limits of vision forward and aft from using their mirrors, who are aware of lane control, who are aware of correct following distances, who know how to use brakes, who understand how to corner a vehicle. And with that, as sort of a toolbox of skills, they would have a baseline where there are less -- the level of taxation mentally simply keep the vehicle -- sorry.
NNAMDIYou seem to be suggesting that our road test now have to be updated.
ERICI would say that we could look to Europe, Scandinavia for the level of education that is required to get a license. And the drivers who understand vehicle dynamics and how to actually drive a vehicle beyond keeping it between the door handles would be better be able should they pick up a cellphone, to be acquiring information better and to be able to drive...
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid you get the last comment in this conversation, Eric, because we are out of time. Eric, thank you for your call. Justin Berkowitz, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIJustin Berkowitz is East Coast bureau chief of Car and Driver magazine. David Strayer, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIDavid Strayer is a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. Laura Knapp Chadwick, thank you for coming in.
NNAMDILaura Knapp Chadwick is senior manager of government affairs with Consumer Electronics Association. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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