Paul Atchley sees the distracted-driving movement as akin to the drunken-driving movement. Progress was made incrementally – laws enacted and strengthened, perspectives changed through grassroots efforts.
That’s why the University of Kansas professor says a new law in Junction City is a step in the right direction. This month, Junction City police began enforcing a new hands-free cellphone ordinance. It is now illegal to use a cellphone there while driving except with a hands-free device. Violators can be fined up to $500 or sentenced to 30 days in jail.
“It’s good to have hands-free,” Atchley said. “That’s going to increase everyone’s safety.”
When it comes right down to it, though, Atchley says it’s not the hands that are the problem when driving – it’s the brain. Using a hands-free device to make a phone call while driving is still distracting, says Atchley, a cognitive psychologist with the KU Transportation Institute.
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Speaking recently from the Virginia Distracted Driving Institute, Atchley emphasized the dangers of using cellphones while driving. He pointed to data from the National Safety Council that attributes 25 percent of all crashes to cellphone use – not simply texting.
“Driving is the single riskiest thing we do in our entire lives,” Atchley said. “We have parents without children and children without parents because of distracted drivers.”
Texting while driving has gotten a lot of attention – and is illegal in Kansas – but Atchley says talking on the phone is also highly problematic.
Different from radio, passengers
“The phone is a very special case as compared to the radio or a passenger,” he said.
The radio is passive – the brain will tune it out when needed. Plus, Atchley said, “the radio can actually help keep you alert and help you stay awake.”
With passengers, he says, in-car conversations change as the traffic conditions change. A passenger can see the congestion or a hazard, usually pointing things out or pausing as the driver’s need for concentration increases.
With cellphone conversations, that doesn’t happen. The other party isn’t aware of what is occurring on the road. Atchley’s research shows that drivers find their conversations so compelling that they don’t put them on the backburner. In fact, they end up missing significant events right in front of them, referred to as “inattention blindness.”
“It’s really having your mind on the road that’s critical,” Atchley said.
Additionally, he says, the concept of multitasking is a myth – it is simply an impossibility for the brain. What people can do is task switch, but their ability to focus on either task is lessened.
“Your brain has to do these mental gymnastics,” Atchley said.
(Test yourself: Say letters A through K and then count to 10. Now try alternating between the letters and numbers: A-1, B, 2, etc.)
Task switching back and forth between the road and the phone is a recipe for danger, he says.
These days, Wichitan Frieda Same puts her cellphone away and sends calls straight to voicemail when she gets behind the wheel.
It’s just not worth the risk, she says.
A friend’s teenage son was using his cellphone while driving – talking not texting – and ended up in a crash that killed another person.
And now her soon-to-be 16-year-old daughter is learning to drive. Same knew she had to set the right example for her.
“If you call me and I’m not answering, I’m driving,” Same said. “Everything can wait for me.”
Theresa Schwiethale feels she takes appropriate precautions with her cellphone use in the car. It’s important for her to have the phone with her because of family members’ health issues and in case her children’s schools need to reach her.
Schwiethale says she uses only the speakerphone so that she can keep both hands on the wheel, and she is not shy about ending or pausing conversations when she encounters construction or pedestrians.
Atchley understands the temptation drivers face, many people conditioned almost in a Pavlovian way to respond to that ring or text message ping.
“If you take the phone with you into the car, you’ve already lost,” Atchley said. “There’s no safe way to use a phone in a car.”
Fourteen states have enacted laws banning the use of handheld cellphones while driving: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Washington and West Virginia. Vermont’s ban goes into effect in October; New Hampshire’s in July 2015.
Forty-four states, including Kansas, have bans on texting while driving.
Source: Governors Highway Safety Association