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Chit chat with passenger is different than talking on a hands-free phone

How is it any different from talking to a passenger?

We hosted a small gathering for my step daughter’s 30th birthday. She got to hear my road safety pitch about the ridiculousness of banning hand held, but not hands free cell phone use, “for the 500th time”.

The topic just sort of came up when I was chatting up one of her friends. It always comes up. I’m like a child at show and tell with some shiny cool thing I’m dying to share.

She might have thought it was cool the first time. Noting that it was “for the 500th time” is a strong clue that any shine it might have had has been lost.

Her friend kindly showed interest in what I had to say.

His immediate response was a predictable one because 500 of 500 folks I share my pitch with respond with the same question: “How is it any different from talking to a passenger?”

It’s a very reasonable question, because my pitch is based on a similar kind of comparison.

We all agree, I think, that hand held cell phone use is dangerous and illegal. My pitch is that since the hands free version has been scientifically proven to pose the same level of danger, it should also be illegal.

The flip side of that coin is that talking to a passenger is legal and, presumably, safe. Hands free cell phone use seems a lot like talking to a passenger. Therefore, shouldn’t hands free cell phone use be legal as well?

Please understand that I take no credit for the “heavy lifting” of scientific study and analysis that forms the basis of what I am about to share with you.  I do have over 20 years of experience sorting out what causes car crashes and the science and analysis fits my experience, but please don’t discount what I tell you on the basis that I might be some crazy maverick.

And if you have any doubt at all about what I am sharing with you and have a genuine interest in learning about this stuff, please ask and I will send you some reading material.

Fully 50 per cent of the car crash cases I handle arose when a driver inexplicably failed to notice that the traffic ahead had come to a stop and drove into the back of a stopped vehicle.

Most of the other 50 per cent are a mix of all sorts of other driving scenarios where the offending driver was simply not attentive to what was going on. A driver looking in the direction of an approaching vehicle but somehow not “seeing” it, looking out the windshield but somehow failing to notice a stop sign, etc.

That’s what the science says occurs when your brain is elsewhere, talking on a cell phone while driving. You are looking out of your windshield, but “missing” up to 50 per cent of what’s there.

A passenger is another set of eyes. How many times have you played “back seat driver”, alerting the person behind the wheel that he is about to miss a turn? Or alerted with a, “Hey!” and/or noticeably bracing yourself when the driver was roaring up behind stopping traffic at a changing light or seeming to miss other road hazards?

And please, next time you’re chatting away with a passenger, notice what happens when traffic becomes the least bit complicated. The pace of discussion automatically slows as both of your brains become more engaged with the roadway.

As I was explaining this to my step-daughter’s friend, I was delighted to see that his eyes weren’t glazing over. And after puzzling about it a bit, he came up with another piece that I had not read about nor come up with on my own.

Chit-chat with your passenger is more likely just that: chit-chat. The polite filling of dead air space to avoid an uncomfortable silence.

A cell phone discussion is more likely to be a purposeful and engaging communication. You don’t pick up your phone and call folks to fill dead air space. And when you’re done talking you hang up.

I haven’t seen any science on this point, but it makes sense to me that a purposeful and engaging communication is more likely to be cognitively distracting than idle chit-chat.

The problem with cell phone use while driving is that you are engaging your brain in something other than the road ahead of you, leading you to “miss” up to 50 per cent of what is going on in your field of view, and that this is no different whether you are talking hand held or hands free.

Is it similarly distracting to engage your brain in a discussion with your passenger? I imagine so, and please keep that in mind!

But idle chit-chat discussions with your passenger are unlikely to be as distracting as purposeful and engaging cell phone discussions. And a passenger is another set of eyes, able to alert you to things you miss and adjust the pace of the discussion to fit more complicated traffic situations.

Are you ready to support me in pushing for an all-out ban on cell phone use while driving?


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  • Hi Paul. This is a very good article. I have been a proponent of banning hands free since I got my new vehicle in 2014. I tried handsfree a couple of times and was aghast at how distracting it was. Never mind the poor handsfree dialing which never gets it right. Your article has helped me understand the issue more thoroughly. I also think (no science involved) that the fact that on a cell phone (handsfree or otherwise) that our cognitive processes are working overtime to understand the speech, after all it is digital (just a bunch of 0’s and 1’s)… I liken it to listening to someone talking on their cell phone in a restaurant, and they are always talking too loud… which is what happens when you have to strain to hear/understand the caller on the other end. I also think your “looking but not seeing” point is a cause for a great many horrible collisions on the road. It goes to show that most drivers on the road are poor novices at best, which added to a large dollop of denial (I’m a great driver! I’ll never have a collision!) is a recipe for the disasters that we are seeing on the roads every day. Thanks for your great articles. Is there an organization in Canada that is advocating for a ban on hands-free? Can we add speed limiters and black boxes to every car on the road as part of our campaign? Thanks… #justdrive

    • Thank you so very, very much Alison!!

      I wonder if you might take the time to read my very poorly performing petition: There are two important documents referred to within it. One is an April, 2012 White Paper from the National Safety Council (U.S.), called “Understanding the distracted brain”. The other is a Discussion Paper published by the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, Province of BC, in 2009….the year before we changed our laws to ban only the hand held version of cell phone use. Interestingly, the hyperlink to the Discussion Paper no longer works so I will have to send it to you separately!

      I would love, love, love to collaborate on this very important matter.