Cell phones + driving = distraction

As the beginning of Distracted Driving Awareness Month approaches, Abe Al-Tarawneh, Superintendent of our Division of Safety & Hygiene takes a look back at early studies he conducted related to the use of cell phones while driving.

AbeAltarawnehI am always amazed by our ability to overlook our mishaps and judgment error. We humans are so proud of our superiority to the rest of the species to the extent that we think we can do it all. In the science of human factors, a great deal of work has been directed at how we process information and make decisions. Any human factors expert will tell you, we are not as good as most of us think when it comes to that. That explains many of the human errors and their catastrophic consequences in medical care, basic written and verbal instructions and communications in general, and performing common daily tasks such as driving.

Between 1999 and 2000, I spent a great deal of time learning and conducting laboratory experiments to assess the effect of cellular phone use while driving on the driving performance for my Ph.D. dissertation In the process, I learned so much about driving, talking on cellular phones, and the grave consequences of trying to do both. At the time, texting did not exist, social media was evolving into a distant future and the best cellular phones in the market were what we considered “small” flip phones.  Those who are old enough will recall the “stylish,” compact thin, and colorful Motorola SLVR being the biggest hit in the market in 2005. In the late ’90s, the best imaginative minds were talking about incorporating wireless communications devices for navigation purposes, nobody was thinking of Facebook or Twitter. And all the APPs we can access on our cellular phones today.

As I completed my work in this field, I found myself getting interviewed by the Wall Street Journal and LA Times to address heated debates across the country about banning the use of cellular phones while driving or limiting it to only hands-free. The latter became the trend and the least of two evils. Needless to say, I was not a big fan of limiting use to hands-free because it will only provide drivers the ability to do other things with their hands while driving and talking.

In my small laboratory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I tinkered with phone models of the year 2000 trying to imagine what these devices will be capable of in the future and how drivers will be using them as these capabilities expand. At the time, the worst thing one could do with a cellular phone while driving is to dial a number and talk. I imagined that eventually, people will start reading text, review their calendars and enter appointments into their calendar phones. In my laboratory experiments, I tried to mimic some of these tasks and hypothesized that the effect of cellular phone use on driving has more to do with the complexity of the conversation and less to do with using handheld versus hands-free devices; the capability of phones will expand and the complexity of how we use the phones while driving will become a function of that; and that as the demands for hand/visual coordination increase while using the phones and driving, crash avoidance will decrease.

I spent two years mocking up and rating phone conversations with varied levels of complexity and testing choice response time of human subjects as they engage in these conversations while performing a simulated driving task. My lab experiments confirmed as the complexity of the conversations increased and/or the demands for hand-visual coordination increased, so did choice response time. And as choice response time increased, crash avoidance decreased. Probably one would say, this is basic logic, however, confirming and quantifying basic logic was and still the tricky part in all of this work. Depending on the type of task we are performing with the phone, our choice response time while driving can increase to almost threefold that of one who is not using a phone. It is estimated that half of vehicular crashes could be avoided if the driver had half a second extra to react. I will leave you to do the math on that one relative to how many injuries could have been avoided and how many lives could have been spared.

To go back to where I started, as complex as this problem is, it boils down to basic theories in human factors relative to how we perceive and process information, make decisions and follow that with response. All theories lead to one major conclusion: our performance on a primary task decreases as the demands on a concurrent secondary task increase, no matter how smart or skilled we “think” we are. The two major factors that limit our ability to perform are the limited capacities of our attention and working memory.

At the time, everyone who did research in this area viewed driving as the primary task and using the phone as the secondary one. Lately, as I see people passing me while holding their phones to write or read a text message or a Twitter comment, or hit “like” on a friend’s Facebook comment, I think to myself, driving is becoming the secondary task. Then I think to myself, with all the time I spent in my laboratory trying to imagine and mock up experiments, I failed to imagine how with all the knowledge we would accumulate through better communications technology and means we will still ignore the concept of distracted driving and its results.

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