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Would cellphone ban dial back ‘distracted driving’?

The National Trans­porta­tion Safety Board (NTSB) — an inde­pen­dent fed­eral agency respon­sible for inves­ti­gating trans­porta­tion acci­dents and pro­moting trans­porta­tion safety — called for a com­plete end to cell­phone use while dri­ving, as opposed to bans in some states that still allow talking on hands-​​free devices. Here, Judith Per­rolle, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of soci­ology and an expert on the social impact of tech­nology, explains the dan­gers of using a cell­phone on the road, safer tech­nology alter­na­tives and the soci­etal impact of such a ban.

Why has the NTSB called for a complete ban on cellphone use while driving?

The problem with cell­phone use by dri­vers is part of what trans­porta­tion safety experts refer to as “dis­tracted dri­ving.” Auto­mo­biles are the most dan­gerous tech­nology in the United States, leading to the deaths of more than 33,000 people last year. The NTSB esti­mates that dis­tracted dri­ving was the cause of about 10 per­cent of fatal acci­dents. Despite claims by some researchers, most studies show that humans are not really very good at mul­ti­tasking. Cell­phone use causes most people to take their hands, their eyes and their atten­tion away from dri­ving. Also, many hands-​​free sys­tems are not really hands-​​free, but rather, require users to look at or handle their phone for some tasks.

What are the challenges of implementing such a drastic societal change?

People who use their cell­phones for work and while dri­ving would be seri­ously incon­ve­nienced by a more wide­spread adop­tion of the hands-​​free ban. For most, how­ever, ban­ning cell­phone use while dri­ving would not be a drastic change, espe­cially for those who are already unable to use their cell­phones at work for per­sonal calls, on air­planes or in other set­tings. According to the NTSB, 70 per­cent of U.S. states already ban tex­ting while dri­ving, and 60 per­cent ban cell use by new dri­vers. One in five states cur­rently bans hands-​​free cell­phone use.

What improvements can be made to digital technology to enable drivers to talk safely on the road?

An obvious improve­ment would be inter­faces that are eyes-​​free as well as hands-​​free, allowing people to listen to calls and mes­sages and to con­verse or send mes­sages by speaking to their phone or to a built-​​in inter­face in their vehicle. Inter­faces like Apple’s new Siri system and some of the on-​​board sys­tems cur­rently being planned for cars could solve part of the dis­tracted driver problem. But even an eyes– and hands-​​free system would not nec­es­sarily focus dri­vers’ atten­tion on the rather dull busi­ness of dri­ving a vehicle safely instead of the more inter­esting activity of inter­acting with friends and family. Per­haps devel­op­ments in dri­ver­less vehi­cles will solve the problem by let­ting us all become pas­sen­gers on safer roads. Or we could just take public transportation.

– by Kara Shemin

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