I’m on the road today. I’m a member of an external advisory committee for a research program at a university about an hour by car from my own. Not bad duty. You get to listen to scientists talking about science all day (some of us actually like that) and you get asked your opinions (whether well founded or not). But it’s winter, there’s a storm brewing and the rush hour traffic on the interstate at 7 in the morning is very heavy, cruising along at 60 miles an hour. I’m driving my 14 year old shitbox Volvo sedan with the hood that looks like it will pop up as I drive (it won’t; in fact I’m not sure I can raise the hood). I have a passenger, another academic, an old friend from another institution in the same town as mine and we have a lot to talk about. We’re chatting about something of great interest to us both (academic politics so I won’t trouble you with the details). And I start to notice that I’m not paying enough attention to the road. In fact I’m on total autopilot. And it occurred to me it might not be that different than talking on a cell phone:
You might have heard this advice before, but the National Safety Council has just made it official: They call on motorists to stop using cell phones – even those with hands-free attachments – while driving. They?re also urging state governments to pass laws banning phoning and text messaging while behind the wheel. NSC President and CEO Janet Froetscher had this to say:
Driving drunk is also dangerous and against the law. When our friends have been drinking, we take the car keys away. It?s time to take the cell phone away.
(Liz Borkowski, The Pump Handle)
That got me thinking. What if it were true a passenger is as distracting as a cell phone? Does that mean that if we ban cell phones while driving (which I think is good idea) we should also make people drive solo? Here’s why I think not. Most things in life involve trade-offs and the benefits of increasing the carrying capacity of vehicles is substantial. There is certainly a risk to it as well, since even if talking to a passenger doesn’t cause an accident, a motor vehicle accident where passengers are involved produces more injury (i.e., more injured people on average). But in the larger scheme I feel fairly confident in arguing that having more people in a car (considering energy, air pollution, costs, etc.) on average nets out positively.
When it comes to cell phones, hands on or hands free, I’m not at all confident. In fact I’m guessing it is the other way around. While some phone use in the car may represent a net gain, it seems pretty obvious to me that an awful lot of phoning-while-driving is discretionary visiting. I frequently have people who call me while they are commuting as a way to make the time pass or to “touch base.” I discourage it but it is hard when you don’t want to be rude, so I often wind up talking to them (after telling them I hope they are paying attention to the road).
I’d be just as happy if cell phones were banned when driving. For bona fide emergency use you can explain it to the police.
Do I do it? Almost never (I won’t lie. I’ve done it on occasion for conversations of less than a minute).