Cell phone alerts are dangerous to drivers

I know. You've been nagged and nagged by writers, including me and my colleague, Al Sacco, to put down your phone and other devices when you're behind the wheel. But before you stop reading note this: A new study from Florida State University indicates that even putting your phone on vibrate while you drive doesn't make you all that much safer.

In fact, the distraction caused by a simple notification -- whether it is a sound or a vibration -- is comparable to the effects seen when drivers actively use their cell phones to make calls or send text messages, the researchers found. "The level of how much it affected the task at hand was really shocking," said Courtney Yehnert, a researcher who worked on the study.

You might think that a short-lived buzz or chime wouldn't be much of a distraction. But that's not the case, the researchers found -- they make your mind wander, and that's a real problem when you're driving.

Here's a small experiment that I performed recently. Next time you're driving, make a note of a landmark on the roadside and as you pass it, start to count slowly to two or three -- as in "one Mississippi, two Mississippi and so on. If it's safe, pull over when you're done and notice how far you've travelled from the spot where you started counting. Depending on your speed, it's quite a ways.

If you're distracted that long on a city street, that's plenty of time to run someone over or blow through a stop sign. And if you're moving at highway speeds, the potential for a serious rear-ended is quite high.

The Florida State study is at odds with the conventional wisdom that hands-free, heads-up technology is just fine for communicating while driving. "Cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupt performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants do not directly interact with a mobile device during the task," said the researchers.

The researchers point out something that people don't like to hear: most of us have a limited attention span. I have friends who swear that they are great multitaskers, but if they are, they are in a tiny minority. "Simply remembering to perform some action in the future is sufficient to disrupt performance on an unrelated concurrent task," the researchers said.

And as Al Sacco noted, "The fact that it's perfectly legal to talk on the phone while driving in the majority of states (36 to be exact) as long as you use a handset-free device suggests that government leaders are under this impression -- or at least the laws reflect the misunderstanding."

I won't repeat the statistics about how many people are killed or maimed because of distracted driving. It's a huge number, and as I noted at the top of this post, you've probably already heard it. But now that you know that even hands-free is not safe, I hope you'll change your behavior and switch that phone into airplane mode when you're in the car.


Bill Snyder

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