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Ban all phones in the car? Medical journal makes the case

Published March 14, 2013

These days, the subject of distracted driving and teen driving—often one and the same—can make even the most ardent safety zealot weary. After all, cell phones are ubiquitous, text is the primary communication method of a lot of teens, but laws and software safety protocols within smartphones are doing their part to curb the crashing of teen drivers distracted by their relentless interactions with SMS, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.

It’s a work in progress, sure, more education is necessary, definitely, but it’s not like we should ban the use of mobile phones in all cars for everyone, right? Why should passengers’ cell phones be disabled just because the car is in motion? What about the emergency needs of any given driver? Isn’t mandatory hands-free enough?

Turns out, no.

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To date, no legislature (that we’re aware of) has suggested banning all device usage in a moving car. But a team of researchers writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association has done just that. And they discuss it in a way that puts to shame offhand dismissal of mine (and perhaps yours) of such a measure as something inherently extreme — or at least off the table. They point out, quite reasonably, that driving requires “visual, spatial, and manual functions,” and that using a handheld phone diverts both visual and manual attention away from the task at hand, namely, handling the vehicle in such a way that nobody dies. Texting requires the diversion of even more manual attention and a significant amount of visual attention.

If those two points are the bump and the set, here’s the spike: “Compared with drivers not usng cell phones while driving, the likelihood of a safety-critical event is 6 times higher for drivers dialing a cell phone and 23 times higher for those texting.” And, if you wanted one, a spike directly into your face: “Increasing texting volumes was estimated to result in more than 16,000 additional motor vehicle-related fatalities from 2001 to 2007.”

I’m not trying to be preachy here. I’m genuinely chastened. I’ve been very willing to be all smug and superior about people who text and drive or check email and drive, because it seems obvious to me that these are indefensible behaviours. But I’ve conveniently left out talking on the phone. Why? Because I talk on the phone while driving. I mean, it’s only for a few minutes, and I’m always very careful, and it’s usually just because I need to check with my husband before he gets home and I normally would never blah blah blah excusecakes.

What’s my real reason? It’s convenient. It’s easy to rationalize. I like to. No one’s making me stop.

That’s the authors’ ultimate point. These behaviours are killing people, they inarguably point out, and no amount of education or legislation is going to change that. Nor should we be surprised about that, they say: it’s very unusual for education to lead to behaviour change, and the laws against it are so difficult to enforce that legislation makes little difference either.

The technology exists, they say, to render all communication devices inoperable in a moving car. That’s the only measure that will make people stop doing this thing that kills thousands of people every year and that is completely unnecessary.

It has to be admitted that this is a more extreme suggestion than any yet on the table. But as if to bolster their argument, along comes the release of the most recent statistics on the number of teenagers in the U.S. who die while driving. The Governors’ Highway Safety Association released their preliminary review of data for the first six months of 2012, which shows that deaths among 16-year-old and 17-year-old drivers in the U.S. increased by 19 per cent over the same time period in 2011. This marks the second year in a row that teen driver deaths have increased, after several years of continuous decline.

Of course, in both years, the numbers represent an improvement over the levels of deaths among teen drivers before many states started a push for Graduated Driver Licensing. In 2000,
999 16- and 17-year-olds died while driving; in 2010, the number was down to 410. The most recent increases still represent a decrease from that 2000 high, but it’s on the rise nevertheless and that is troubling.

The researchers speculate that part of the reason may be the partial economic recovery underway in the U.S.; more teenagers may be on the road than in 2008 and 2009. But it’s difficult not to also speculate about the increased role of communication devices in teenagers’ lives. Each new cohort of 16-year-old drivers is of a group that’s spent more of their lives accustomed to being in constant contact. For each new cohort, it gets more and more unimaginable that they’d cut off that contact just because they happen to be driving.

The JAMA authors suggest that we make this not a question of choice, but of technology, and simply make it impossible to drive and chat/text/talk/whatever at the same time. It might be time to get this idea on the table.

What do you think?

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