Dangers of driving while chatting

Picture the scenario: The phone rings while a person is driving and the driver picks it up. Chatting away on the phone, he or she drives to his or her destination.

Larry Z. Leslie, a USF mass communications associate professor, often lectures to his media ethics classes on the dangers of using a cell phone while driving.

“The cell phone has been a marvelous invention because it does enable us to communicate with law enforcement and health care people when we have an accident or when we see an emergency,” Leslie said. “However, I don’t think it’s been very helpful to us otherwise when we’re on the highway. In my opinion, Americans are not good at multitasking on the highway.”

In 2002, The National Safety Council (NSC) issued a statement on multitasking similar to Leslie’s: Drivers should focus on driving.

“A driver’s first responsibility is the safe operation of the vehicle, and the best practice is not to use electronic devices, including cell phones, while driving,” the statement said.

When motorists are on cell phones, they are talking and listening, thinking about the conversation they are having and taking their attention off the road.

“It engages us cognitively,” Leslie said. “It’s not exactly the same thing as tuning a radio station or changing a CD. Those are mechanical tasks. Driving takes a lot of cognitive activity. When you turn that activity over to cell phone use, then you are using your brain less on the highway and that’s what we don’t need.”

The Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign recently conducted a study in which college students drove virtual cars while talking and listening to a speaker box, a simulation of talking hands-free.

Surprisingly, the study found that hands-free devices cause motorists to drive just as erratically as if they were talking on a handheld. Drivers, according to the study, have a more difficult time maintaining a constant speed, staying in lanes and judging distances.Others have found the same types of results with reaction times in those who use a cell phone while driving.

“If you put a 20-year-old driver behind the wheel with a cell phone, their reaction times are the same as a 70-year-old who is not using a cell phone. It’s like instantly aging a large number of drivers,” said University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer in an article on Livescience.com.

Law enforcement officials are concerned with not only cell phones as a distraction while driving, but also anything that will take a driver’s attention off the road.

“The cell phone is just one more technologically based distraction,” University Police spokesman Sgt. Mike Klingebiel said. “Personal grooming, radio, kids in the car, anything that distracts from driving we’re concerned about.

“Those are things that have to be reduced to keep your attention on the road, so you can focus on the job of driving. Those types of distractions can lead to accidents and injuries. So we’re definitely not in favor of using a cell phone while driving,” he said.

Although drivers may know that using a cell phone while driving is not safe, many continue to do it anyway and must be aware of the consequences.

“When a driver decides that it is safe to use such a device (as a cell phone) while driving, it should be with the understanding that negligent drivers be held accountable when distracted driving results in the injury or death of others,” the statement from the NSC said.

Laws have been put into effect in such states as New York, Klingebiel said, but “the cell phone and the implementation of that technology has outpaced the laws.”Klingebiel said it would be impossible to implement a rule prohibiting cell phones while driving on the USF campus since “the University really does not regulate driving behaviors; that’s more of a statutory function, and being (University) police, we just enforce it.”

Even if there was a law, Leslie says enforcing it wouldn’t be possible.

“(There’s) no way to enforce (a law prohibiting cell phone use while driving),” said Leslie. “Abiding by the laws in traffic is about 90 percent voluntary. We agree to abide by the laws to make it safer for everyone on the highway. Cell phone use in cars, like the use of headlights during rain, is not enforceable. It’s up to the individual, and individuals are not going to restrict their use of that kind of technology in contemporary culture.”Cell phone use while driving is a problem, but Leslie has a solution.

“On every major street, have a little pull-off area. I say we have pull-off areas every once in a while on the major streets,” Leslie said. “If you get a cell phone (call), you pull off into this pull-off area and you talk on your cell phone. When your talking is done, you pull back on the main street. It’s a great idea, but people don’t want to stop where they’re going to do that.”

Education is the best way to get people to understand the dangers of using a cell phone while driving, Klingebiel said.

“You want to change people’s behaviors and their minds. You can do that through law but those laws have penalties,” Klingebiel said. “We can customize any (of our) crime prevention programs for (a specific) audience. If asked, we can change our program to discuss cell phone use while driving. We might have to do a little bit of research to get statistics (though).”

Klingebiel added that cell phones are a part of the culture, especially at USF.

“Cell phones are prevalent in all walks of life. I don’t know anyone at the University that doesn’t have a cell phone. We are a commuter school; we have more people that commute than live on campus, so there are people that are going to be using that cell phone.”