EHS OutLoud Blog

Not All Distractions Are Created Equal

cell_phone.gifI have a few road trips coming up, which means I'll be spending many hours behind the wheel. And yes, I'll admit it right now: I will drink coffee while I drive, or change the radio station (more like tapping the preset buttons, but still). While those activities technically might be classified as distractions, they're not as dangerous as using a hands-free headset to talk on the phone while driving. Here's why.

During a press conference preceding the release of the National Safety Council's (NSC) 2012 State of the Nation of Cell Phone Distracted Driving report, an expert pointed out that not all driving distractions are created equal. John Ulczycki, group vice president of strategic initiatives at NSC, explained that risk and prevalence play a big role in distracted driving. For example, drinking a cup of coffee while driving is common behavior, but it's not very risky. Turning around in the driver's seat to talk to your kids while driving is extremely risky, but it's also not very common (let's hope!).

Talking on a cell phone while driving, however, is both risky and prevalent behavior, which is why cell phone use poses such a risk to on-the-road safety. (To learn more about how risk and prevalence impact distracted driving, read Distracted Driving Report Claims Cell Phone Use Contributes to 24 Percent of All Crashes.)

This is when someone will often interrupt to say, "But what about hands-free headsets?" or "Does this mean talking to passengers should be banned, too?" I hear these questions again and again, and they often pop up in the comment sections of our distracted driving articles. The short answer is no, hands-free headsets are not a safer option, and no, talking to passengers does not present the same threat as talking on a cell phone.

Here's the deal: When I pick up a cup of coffee while driving, I might take one hand off the wheel, but my mind is still on the road. If I'm engaged in a cell phone conversation, it doesn't matter whether I'm holding a phone to my ear or I have my hands firmly set in the 10-and-2 position on the steering wheel. Either way, I'm distracted, and my brain cannot focus fully on the road while chatting to someone on the phone. Research has shown again and again that our concentration and driving ability (and, therefore, our safety) is compromised when we're engaged in a cell phone conversation. Our brains cannot multitask in this way, no matter how much we want to believe it's possible (and no matter how much someone might think he's the exception to the rule).

Talking to a passenger is a different story, however. When you chat with someone else in the car, that person is capable of watching the road and being aware of the immediate surroundings -- which is impossible for someone on the other end of a phone. Passengers can point out missed exits, merging cars, construction up ahead and so on. Most of all, talking to someone in the car does not take our attention to an external source like it does when we're on the phone.

I'll be the first to admit I'm not a perfect driver, but I am vigilant when it comes to putting away my cell phone when I'm behind the wheel. In the past, I've talked on the phone while driving and I know I was distracted. Have you ever hung up after a cell phone conversation and realized you had little memory of the miles you just drove?

This is why you might find me drinking coffee in the driver's seat but never engaging in a cell phone conversation. What we know now -- that talking on a cell phone is dangerous behavior, whether you use a hands-free set or not, and that the presence of other distractions does not excuse the risky, prevalent and dangerous distraction of cell phone conversations -- should be enough to make us all hit the "off" button before hitting the road.

To learn more about distracted driving, read Why We Need to Hang Up On Our Distracted Driving Addiction, Don’t Let Excuses Be Your Distraction, Super Bowl Ad Encourages Distracted Driving and Dying to Text, and listen to the podcast Distracted Driving: Myth or Fact?

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