Driving is an activity that requires complete attention and focus – any deviation in focus can be disastrous, from talking to someone else to changing the channel on the radio. There has been a great amount of study devoted to the idea that cell phone usage during driving is a dangerous prospect – the amount of distraction taken in multitasking to that extent can lead to disastrous consequences, from mere property damage to even injury and death. In the following essay, several articles and documents will be explored which examine this theory of cell phone usage being dangerous while driving.
In Matt Richtel’s New York Times article “Driven to Distraction,” both anecdotal evidence and statistical research are used to demonstrate the danger that distracted driving presents. It states that “drivers using phones are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers, and the likelihood that they will crash is equal to that of someone with a .08 percent blood alcohol level.” (2009)
Richtel’s article also discusses the societal reasoning behind cell phone distractions, and the fact that, despite how dangerous cell phones have proven to be, why people still use them. Among the reasons cited are a cultural dependency on multitasking and constant sensory stimulation, a phenomenon known as “acquired attention deficit disorder.” The dopamine rush people feel when they use their electronic devices makes them addicted to it, and therefore they need to mess with their phones all the time. Also, people feel the pressure to constantly be in contact with their friends and family, even when they are on the road. (2009)
Potential legislation banning the use of cell phones while driving is also discussed by Richtel – there have been many attempts in the past to pass this type of law, but it is always stopped by a lack of real statistics and studies on the dangers of cell phone usage, as well as how many people were using electronic devices during an accident. Self-reporting is crucial to acquiring real statistics on this phenomenon, but people instead say that they were not on their cell phone, or that they had just finished the call, so that their insurance rates do not go up. (Richtel, 2009) Also, the cellphone lobby has killed many a bill due to the potential loss of business they could incur, but that opposition has gone down with a de-emphasis on phone minutes for their business – there is not as much of an incentive for people to talk less on their phones, as apps and downloads are their bread and butter.
Richtel’s article focuses less on the scientific phenomenon of cell phone distractions while driving, and more on the personal stories and anecdotes, as well as the cultural and societal effects of distracted driving. While it does mention statistics and studies related to the number of injuries and deaths resulting from cell phone usage, the main focus of the article is several attempts at legislation, as well as psychological studies on cell phone behavior while driving. On the whole, it provides a very comprehensive look at what the phenomenon is doing to the country in a general sense, and helps to explain to the layman what drives people to use their cell phones while driving, despite the dangers it presents. It shows what attempts are being made to change that behavior, and why it has not happened yet.
In Strayer and Johnston’s journal “Driven to Distraction,” however, a real psychological study was performed on simulated driving while using a cell phone. It establishes firmly that cell phone usage can impair judgment and steal attention from the road, disrupting performance. A dual-task study was created, having subjects drive and have a long-form cell phone conversation at the same time to determine driving competency.
This study operates on precedent, noting a previous study that stated that a quarter of individuals who were sampled were using their cell phone around ten minutes before they got into a car accident. They had two hypotheses that they were testing; one, the peripheral-interference hypothesis, dealt mostly with the distraction coming from the tactile holding of the cell phone, among other peripheral factors. However, the attentional hypothesis addressed the possibility that cell phone usage diverted attention from the act of driving. (Strayer & Johnston, p. 462)
The researchers compared the driving of subjects who were using either handheld cell phones or hands-free devices that allowed for communication without holding a physical phone to their ear. Radio listening was also tested as a distracting factor for driving. Response time was calculated for stopping at a green light, and was the primary barometer for attention span and driving skill based on those stimuli. According to the results, both hands-free and handheld cell phone usage resulted in dramatic slowing of response time, supporting the attentional theory as opposed to the peripheral interference theory. (Strayer & Johnston, p. 464)
A second experiment was then conducted, including both shadowing and generation word games into the cell phone conversation to see how much that divided or slowed participants’ attention span. While the shadowing exercise (repeating of words) did not increase the number of missed traffic lights to a substantial rate, the generation exercise (creating new words) did. (Strayer & Johnston, p. 465) The researchers took these findings to indicate a substantial loss of attention when using cell phones and engaging in conversation on them, leading to a greater likelihood for traffic accidents. The attentional theory is firmly supported, stating that the act of engaging in a cell phone conversation is what increases the likelihood of an accident, instead of peripheral factors like holding the cell phone.
This study is incredibly important for the field of distracted driving study; it helps to debunk the myth that hands-free cell phone usage is somehow safer than handheld cell phones. The conversation itself distracts exactly the same way. Dual-task interference on the whole (driving and talking) is the main cause of distracted driving. This study can be cited as a reputable source when legislators and lobbyists attempt to prove that cell phones do or do not cause traffic accidents.
“Distracted Driving 2009” is a document released in September 2010 by the USDOT to further educate people on the statistics and facts surrounding distracted driving. It verifies information collected by a legitimate branch of government, lending credence to previously mentioned evidence that cell phone usage distracts and causes traffic accidents. Instead of being a news article, like the New York Times article, or a scientific study like the Strayer & Johnston document, this is an official statement of facts and statistics, taking data from a variety of sources, including the Fatality Analysis Reporting System and General Estimates System of organizations such as the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), among others. In it, distracted driving is attributed to 16% of fatal crashes and 20% of crashes resulting in injury. 18% of these fatalities dealt with cell phones being the primary distraction. (2010)
While this document focuses primarily on distracted driving as a general phenomenon, there is a great emphasis on cell phone usage being a large part of that problem. It breaks up the information into vehicle types, injuries and deaths, as well as the age ranges of those who were in the accident and the severity of the accident. It compares the number of total accidents for each year to those which were caused by distraction – each year carries an almost 20% rate of distracted driving accident cases. (“Distracted Driving 2009”, p. 3)
This document is important as a repository of cold hard facts – it does not necessarily draw any conclusions, but the statistics are there to be seen and compared in every possible permutation. It deals with distracted driving as a whole, and how much of it is attributed to cell phone usage. It, along with the previous two articles, provide a comprehensive picture of the many facets of this phenomenon – how far-reaching it is, why it happens, and how difficult it is to stop it.
In terms of the scientific research process, I have concluded that there are many ways to go about it to explore your topic of interest. There is the pure scientific study route with primary data, like Strayer & Johnston, where they created a hypothesis and tested it with their own experiment and their own participants. They were able to come to some interesting and conclusive ideas regarding distracted driving. However, sources with secondary data are also fairly valid as a basis for scientific research – the USDOT document is a comprehensive look at the statistics related to distracted driving, with particular emphasis on cell phones. The New York Times article, on the other hand, provides a secondary source for statistics, as well as the specific reasoning behind the difficulties inherent in curbing such a culturally ingrained habit as cell phone usage, particularly while driving.
“Distracted Driving 2009.” U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration. Sept. 2010.
RICHTEL, MATT. "Driven to Distraction - Dismissing the Risks of a Deadly Habit - Multitasking on the Road - Series - NYTimes.com." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 18 Jul. 2009. Web. 29 Apr. 2011.
Strayer, David, and William Johnston. "Drive to Distraction: Dual-Task Studies of Simulated Driving and Conversing on a Cellular Telephone." Psychological Science 12 (2001): 462. Print.