As often happens when I’m driving with the kids, one of them started getting carsick. When someone in the back seat is gagging and spraying all over my luxurious vinyl interior it’s pretty tough to concentrate on driving. I pulled over to the side of the road.

Claire was fine, but it got me thinking about something I’d read in the book “Traffic” and on the author Tom Vanderbilt’s blog, How We Drive. He writes about the dangers of driving while talking on the cell phone and I had a hard time understanding the difference between talking on the phone and talking to a passenger. Dialing the phone could also be compared to fiddling with the radio or GPS. Why do cell phones pose a distinct hazard that those other activities don’t?

An article in the Washington Post cites research:

A 1997 study in the New England Journal of Medicine and a
report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in 2005 found
drivers who use cell phones while driving were four times more likely
to be in a crash.

Hands-free devices may also cause a hazard, Froetscher added. A
study by researchers at the University of Utah found no difference in
driver concentration between using hand-held or hands-free devices. In
fact, talking to a passenger while driving is much safer than talking
on a cell phone, the Utah researchers noted.

I assume the reason is a matter of context. The passenger riding shotgun is experiencing traffic along with you. This means they see and hear what you hear, and adjust their conversation accordingly. They may even notice and point out things you haven’t. If it’s your mom, she may even slam hard on the passenger brake, signaling her dissatisfaction with your hoonage.

The National Safety Council backs this up:

“When you’re on a call, even if both hands are on the wheel, your head is in the call, and not on your driving,”
Froetscher said. “Unlike the passenger sitting next to you, the person on the other end of the call is oblivious to
your driving conditions. The passenger provides another pair of eyes on the road.”

My puking kids don’t have that ability, however. I’ll have to continue to resort to pulling over and grabbing a towel and spare pants from the trunk.

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