Mandating hands-free phone use while driving may not be much safer

September 23, 2018

HARLINGEN — It’s a sunny day and you’re behind the wheel, motoring down a street or a highway in the Rio Grande Valley.

Your mobile phone rings, you answer it, and continue driving.

From the moment you pick up that call, whether it’s work, wife, husband, kids or friends, your brain switches from the area where the complex motor skills deployed in driving a vehicle are processed, to another part of the brain which processes speech.

Your brain then toggles back and forth in milliseconds between those two sections, trying to master the visual and spatial input you’re receiving from your eyes and balancing it with the needs of talking and listening.

The brain area which processes visual data from your environment has now diminished by one-third as the speech part battles for attention.

Your field of vision through the windshield has now narrowed by as much as 50 percent, creating a tunnel effect which prevents you from processing or even registering data from the edges of your sight field.

This is how your brain works while driving, and no hands-free device is going to change it, experts say.

“ The brain does not do two things at the same time, it mono-tasks, it doesn’t multi-task,” said Alex Epstein, transportation director for the National Safety Council.

“ Try this at home,” he continued. “Try actually having a conversation on the phone and watching TV. Then have somebody ask you about some of the dialogue that was said on TV while you were on the phone. Sure, you’ll remember some images, and sure you might have a little bit of a sense of what’s going on, but it’s really impossible to watch TV and hold a phone conversation at the same time. And it’s true with driving and talking on your phone.”

Harlingen’s ordinance

The City Commission is reviewing an ordinance which would ban drivers from using hand-held phones within city limits, a popular regulatory action which has been passed by about 90 Texas cities, according to Harlingen Police Department officials.

The city’s proposal would still allow drivers to talk using hands-free Bluetooth devices or utilize talk-to-text apps, which translate the spoken word into the written word.

“ As long as the vehicle is in motion, we are expected to have both hands on the wheel,” Deputy Chief Miryam Anderson told commissioners at that meeting. “The mere act of holding on to the phone violates the city ordinance.

“ It doesn’t mean one can’t have a conversation while driving,” Anderson said before the meeting. “It has to be done hands-free.”

Anderson said in the past three years there have been 580 vehicle accidents in the city linked to cell phone use.

Some commissioners and people attending the meeting posed questions about what happens during emergency situations, or whether it would harm city businesses.

Others questioned just how enforceable such an ordinance would be, pointing out the difficulties in policing drivers with the threat of a citation that could cost up to $200.

Distractions ahead

The National Safety Council is a nonprofit, public service organization that promotes health and safety in the United States. Founded in 1913, and granted a congressional charter in 1953, it has more than 50,000 businesses, labor organizations, schools, public agencies, private groups and individuals as members.

The organization focuses on preventing injuries and deaths in the workplace, from prescription medication abuse, teen driving and distracted driving, among other things.

“ What we’re trying to do is give people the ability to reduce the risk on the road,” the NSC’s Epstein said. “Reducing risk is what it’s all about. Distraction crashes are increasing but it’s not only about talking, it’s also about the entertainment centers, people trying to program navigation or do things on the road that are inappropriate, and talking on the phone is one of those things.”

Perhaps the most obvious indicator most drivers experience of mobile phone use on the roads is at stoplights when the motorist in front is still checking his or her cell phone after the light has turned green.

But Epstein says even this behavior can add to risk on the roads, and it circles back to how the brain switches on certain areas and switches off others.

“ People think, too, that it’s OK to text or check your mails at a stop sign or at a red light,” he said. “But the truth of the matter is it takes your brain time to get back into the task of driving… The AAA Foundation did one study that says if you take your eyes off the road for two seconds it could double your risk of a crash. That’s a lot.”

“ There’s also a study out there that says it might take as many as 27 seconds for a person to get their attention fully back from texting or doing some other activity other than the driving task,” he added.

So what about talking with a passenger while driving? Won’t that affect safety on the road as much as talking on a phone?

“ No, you don’t,” Epstein said. “Because typically that person in the backseat or alongside of you actually offers an extra set of eyes and ears on the road. You might be distracted by a billboard or something else, that person might say to you ‘Hey! Be careful, there’s this.’ So it’s actually not the same.”

TxDOT’s safety rules

TxDOT hasn’t necessarily taken a position on whether hands-free mobile use while driving is any safer than talking or texting with a hands-on device.

Instead, the state highways agency has launched a “Talk, Text, Crash” campaign targeting drivers to raise awareness of the dangers inherent in all distracted driving. One in five motor vehicle accidents in Texas involves distracted drivers.

“ In 2017, the total number of reportable motor vehicle traffic crashes on Texas roads was 537,475,” Octavio Saenz, TxDOT spokesperson for the Pharr District, said via email. “Of those, 100,687, or 19 percent, involved distracted driving (driver distraction, inattention or cell phone use). The 100,687 crashes in Texas resulted in 444 deaths and 2,889 serious injuries.”

A state law went into effect on Sept. 1, 2017, making it illegal for all drivers to read, write or send a text while driving. Law enforcement officers look for drivers with their heads down, distracted by their phones.

“ Distracted driving is any activity that takes your attention away from driving,” Saenz added. “Distractions can include anything from texting and talking on a mobile phone to eating and drinking, putting on makeup, shaving, reading, programming a navigation system, watching a video and even adjusting the radio.”

“ If you must talk or text, pull over to a safe location,” he said.

Talk-to-text apps

Some people believe technology, or better technology, can help save us from technology.

One of those instances is called talk-to-text or voice-to-text, becoming increasingly popular among mobile phone apps, where we speak into the phone and it translates that speech into text, which then is messaged to another person without any typing on a mobile’s keyboard.

Yet Epstein believes this technology is so rough now that talk-to-text might be adding additional risks while driving.

“ At this point in the technology I’d say the answer is no,” he said. “I’m not sure how your voice-to-text works, but I find the auto-completion is wrong about 50 percent of the time so you actually have to go back and read this stuff before you send it, or you have to look at it to understand what it is trying to tell you because its not pronouncing things correctly, or you’re not understanding what it says.

“ So at this point, the technology is not at a place where it is helpful,” Epstein added. “I’d say no, it’s not an answer right now.”

Consequences all too real

At the City Commission meeting last month, deputy police chief Anderson cited local architect Meg Jorn’s death just over one year ago as being linked to cell phone use while driving.

Police say they think Jorn was using her cell phone when she was killed in a crash following a collision between an 18-wheeler and an SUV in the westbound lanes of Expressway 83 at Altas Palmas Road.

It is an example of the human tragedy that is a cost of distracted driving.

Epstein said part of his job is to meet with families who have lost loved ones to traffic accidents that might have been preventable.

“ I’ve met one mom who was talking to her daughter,” he said. “The daughter was in the car and they were talking about some after-school activity the daughter was going to and the mom actually heard the daughter crash and die in that instant.”

“ I am haunted, me personally, by the prospect of being on the phone with somebody I love and hearing them in a crash that potentially I played some part in that happening,” he added, “I hope that never happens to any of your readers — I pray that it never happens to any of your readers. But the truth is driving is a dangerous activity, and you must minimize the risks so you come home safely.”


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