Before the cell phone, there was the car phone. Now if safety advocates have their way, mobile phones may become anywhere-but-the-car phones.
“If you can’t control your impulses, you need to lock your phone in the trunk,” Deborah Hersman, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said last month in an interview with The New York Times.
Her comments came after the NTSB issued a call for the most far-reaching restrictions to date on cell phone use while driving. Whereas previous federal recommendations and state laws have focused only on the use of handheld phones, the NTSB suggested that states ban drivers from using any cell phones, including those with hands-free devices. Hersman argues that, even when drivers keep both hands on the wheel, they can suffer from “cognitive distraction” if they carry on conversations with distant parties.
Drivers balked. So did automakers, who recently invested significant resources in integrated hands-free systems. Fortunately for them, the recommendations are unlikely to have any real impact. The NTSB does not have the authority to make rules on auto safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, does. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said that he will not endorse the NTSB’s recommendation.
Regardless of the outcome, the recommendation has refocused attention on the longstanding debate over drivers’ cell phone use. Most of us can probably agree that drivers would be safer if they abstained from talking on the phone. Safety advocates have some rousing statistics to back up this assumption. The National Safety Council, an education and advocacy group, has estimated that 1.3 million traffic accidents each year involve cell phone use. The group’s methodology was highly suspect, as they began with a presupposition that cell phone use increases the risk of accidents, rather than arriving at this conclusion through evidence. Nevertheless, one would be hard-pressed to argue that cell phone use has no negative effects on driving ability.
But drivers would almost certainly also be safer if they refrained from talking to other people in the car with them. And from eating, or drinking, or fiddling with the radio, or singing along with the radio once it’s set, or laughing at billboards, or looking at passing scenery. Cars are machines, but drivers are not. And, as human beings, drivers will inevitably get distracted and they will sometimes make mistakes as a result. Trying to remove all sources of distraction is not the solution. Helping people manage potential distractions is.
As we consider what restrictions to impose on driver cell phone use, I think we can benefit from looking at an earlier effort to regulate distractions in the cockpit. A generation ago, the Federal Aviation Administration required pilots to maintain “sterile cockpit” procedures during critical phases of flight.
In those days, the NTSB also raised concerns about the link between distractions and accidents. In particular, the safety board blamed “distractive” conversations and a “lax cockpit atmosphere” for the 1974 crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 212 in Charlotte, N.C., which killed 72 people. Minutes before touchdown, the cockpit crew was busy trying to identify a local amusement park. Earlier in the approach, the crew discussed politics and used cars.
The FAA could have responded by outlawing all unnecessary in-flight conversation. If it had done so, and if airplane crews had complied, there certainly would have been fewer distractions. But since airplane crew members, like drivers, are human beings, the rule would not have actually been followed.
Instead, the FAA implemented rules banning non-essential conversations only while an aircraft is in a “critical phase of flight.” These rules prohibit flight deck personnel from performing non-essential tasks - even some important customer service functions such as speaking to passengers over the public address system - during taxi, takeoff and landing procedures that require the crew’s full concentration. Sterile cockpit procedures give crews the structure to help them manage responsibilities at the appropriate times, without imposing unrealistic expectations.
Good drivers create their own versions of the sterile cockpit. When I drive, I allow myself to use my car’s built-in Bluetooth system. But I don't use it when I'm in traffic, when the weather is bad, or when I'm trying to navigate an unfamiliar route. Those are my “critical phases of flight,” when I know I need to devote full attention to my driving. During these critical phases, I also tell my passengers, if I have any, that I need to focus. When I’m on clear roads and at my “cruising altitude,” I go ahead and talk to my passengers, and talk on my cell phone if I need to. I still try to keep most cell conversations brief, and I cut them even shorter if conditions deteriorate. But I never lock my phone in the trunk, which would put it out of reach in the event of an accident or other emergency.
Of course, not everyone manages their driving this way. There have been many occasions when I have seen other drivers shooting through traffic and rain while holding their hand to their ears or staring at their upraised palms. Those drivers were not empty-handed. To enforce regulations like the FAA’s sterile cockpit rules for drivers, the authorities would need to monitor every driver all the time. Obviously, that’s not feasible.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done. As a CPA and a Certified Financial Planner™, I'm required to take continuing education classes regularly, both so I can learn about new developments and so I can be reminded of old information. Yet the driving test I passed when I was 17 years old has qualified me as a driver pretty much for life, with no further evidence of competence required beyond an infrequent vision check. This strikes me as odd, since nobody would die if I made a mistake in my professional work, whereas a mistake I made as a driver might easily prove fatal.
Mandatory periodic safety refresher courses could help drivers learn and remember techniques for managing distractions. Learning to think in terms of critical situations could help drivers who would be unwilling to give up in-car cell conversations even if they were illegal.
There would still be accidents, and there would still be accidents resulting from distraction. But if the NTSB really wants to eliminate accidents, it needs to eliminate driving. By harping on a single source of distraction, without considering the entire environment drivers face, the NTSB runs the risk that its initials will be reinterpreted as the National Transportation Scolding Board.
With or without official action, however, we can all do our part to be a more mindful of our own driving. So, if you are reading this on your smart phone while swerving through traffic on a foggy road and planning to update your Facebook status next, do us both a favor, and stop now.