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EHS OutLoud Blog

Dying to Text

When I learned that Dr. Frank Ryan, plastic surgeon to the stars, died Aug. 16 after driving his car off a cliff in Malibu – an accident his ex-girlfriend claims may have been caused by texting – I immediately thought of the people in my own life who have been known to text while behind the wheel.

Just this past weekend, I listened as text messages pinged my friends’ phones – messages sent by other friends who were currently driving to meet us. Like any safety editor worth her salt, I made a point to tell my friends just how dangerous texting while driving is. That includes writing new texts, reading incoming texts, searching through the inbox, checking e-mail, trying to look up contacts, or (God forbid) playing games like Farmville while driving.

But safety concerns aren’t limited to texting behind the wheel. Research shows that talking on a cell phone – and it makes no difference whether you’re using a hands-free set or not – can be as distracting as driving drunk.

Let me say that again. Having a cell phone conversation while driving can be as dangerous as driving drunk.

I’m no stranger to the allure of using a cell phone in the car. When your phone rings and it’s sitting right next to you, it’s so tempting to pick it up. How bad could it be? You’re still watching the road. Maybe you even slow down a little to compensate. It’s something you’ve done countless times before. Other drivers might not be able to handle both a cell phone conversation and safe driving, but you are just fine.

And that right there is the problem. According to David Strayer, Ph.D., the director of the University of Utah’s Applied Cognition Lab, we overestimate our abilities as drivers. Even if we hear that talking on a cell phone while driving is unsafe, we believe that we can handle it.

But we can’t. And it’s killing us.

When I spoke to Strayer several months ago for the June feature story, “Why We Need to Hang Up On Our Distracted Driving Addiction,” he told me:

“You don't instantly crash on the road while talking on the cell phone. And you don't instantly crash when you're drunk, either … In the long run, if you do it enough, you're going to put yourself at risk.”

The only defenses I have heard for driving while chatting on the phone come from people who just plain don’t want to give it up. That’s understandable. Calling a friend for last-minute directions, or checking off that birthday call to your mother-in-law, or reading the hilarious text message from your spouse can be convenient, time-saving or entertaining. But it’s still dangerous behavior that puts you and other motorists at risk, whether you believe it at the moment or not. (And if you’re about to argue that you need to conduct important business calls in the car, let me point out that research shows the quality of your conversation abilities also decreases while you drive – so it would be better for your business to wait until you’re safely off the road, too.)

I’ve witnessed so many drivers’ unsafe acts that I’m considering refusing to take calls from people who are driving. Try to do this, though, and you’ll be labeled a major stick in the mud (even for a safety editor). So maybe it’s the perception of cell phone use while driving that needs to change.

To make our roads safer, to keep our friends and loved ones from driving off a cliff because they are texting, we might have to treat this more like drunk driving after all. If you’re in a car and the driver starts texting, ask them to stop. Tell them how unsafe it is. Same with making phone calls. You wouldn’t want to be in a car with a friend driving drunk, would you?

Distracted Driving Resources:

National Safety Council March 2010 white paper, “Understanding the Distracted Brain: Why Driving While Using Hands-Free Cell Phones is Risky Behavior.”

University of Utah’s Applied Cognition Lab research

University of Utah’s Applied Cognition Lab driving simulator studies (scroll down)

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