Talking ourselves to death

It's legal to use hands-free cellular devices while driving. But is it safe?

car crash 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
car crash 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
You're on a two-lane country road, a driver in the oncoming lane tries to pass the truck in front of him by swerving into your lane, and only at the last moment do you see him and pull sharply to the right, barely avoiding a head-on collision. Ordinarily, you would have seen that idiot coming earlier, but this time you didn't until it was almost too late. Why? Because this time you were deep in conversation on the speaker-phone (diburit) or over the headset. "I pass drivers in the car by themselves who look so caught up in conversation that it's clear where their attention is - on the phone, not on the road," says Dep.-Cmdr. Noam Baginski, commander of the Israel Police's Traffic Accidents Section. "I can say for sure that whether you're talking on the speaker-phone, over a headset or on any other legal, 'hands-free' device while you're driving, it takes away a lot of your attention. Your reaction time is slower and I have no doubt that it causes accidents." The key word here is "legal." In Israel it's legal to talk on the phone while driving as long as both your hands are free; the only thing that's illegal is talking into a hand-held phone. And Israel isn't unique in this by any means. Prof. David Shinhar, chief scientist for the National Road Safety Authority, says he knows of no country that forbids talking on a hands-free phone, and that most states in the US even allow talking on a hand-held one. "For instance, it's illegal to drive while talking on the cellphone in Washington DC, but once you cross the border into Maryland, it's legal," says Shinhar, a professor of ergonomics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. To many if not most people, it probably makes sense that talking on the cellphone while driving should be outlawed, because it keeps one of your hands off the wheel and otherwise gets in your way, while the speaker-phone or headset should be legal because they allow your hands and eyes to be completely free for driving. But what many if not most people aren't aware of is that the problem with talking on any sort of phone while driving is not that it takes your hands and eyes off the road, but that it takes your mind off the road. A driver is four times as likely to get into a serious car crash when he's talking on the phone, and it makes virtually no difference if he's talking on a hand-held or hands-free device, says Shinhar, citing two highly authoritative tests by researchers in the US and Australia. The first was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997, the second in the British Medical Journal in 2005. "WE'VE KNOWN the danger for some time," he says, noting that there are "literally hundreds of tests" showing that talking on the phone while driving causes you to react more slowly to signs, pedestrians and whatever else comes your way on the road, to drift out of your lane, to fail to maintain the proper speed and to carry out other basic tasks of safe motoring. "It's fatal to driving," says Yehoshua Tsal, a Tel Aviv University psychology professor whose specialty is perception and attention. "For the law to say that if you hold the phone while you're driving, you're going to be heavily penalized [a NIS 1,000 fine], but that if you use the speaker-phone it's okay - this is stupid, repeat, stupid." The "advantage" in talking over a hands-free device is marginal, Tsal says - the physical logistics of using a hand-held cellphone account for only a marginal amount of the driver's attention loss during a conversation; all the rest of the attention loss is attributable to the conversation itself. To drivers who may insist that talking on the speaker-phone or headset is no more distracting than talking with a passenger or listening to the radio, Tsal says that argument applies - though not fully - to driving only on the open road where there are few sudden changes that demand the driver's full attention. But on a dangerous, complex stretch of road that demands complete attention - on highways with traffic, in urban and other populated areas such as school neighborhoods where kids cross the street frequently, i.e. in the overwhelming majority of driving situations - there's no comparison between talking on the phone and talking with the passenger or listening to the radio. "When conditions on the road demand total concentration from the driver, the passenger can see it, too, so he naturally stops talking until the driver's mind is free to talk again. If the radio's on during such a situation, the driver's mind automatically tunes out whatever's over the radio so he can focus on his driving. But if he's talking on the speaker-phone, the person on the other end doesn't see the traffic, he just goes on talking and the driver goes on paying attention to him - even though in hazardous driving conditions, he doesn't have the attention to spare," says Tsal. This scenario is being played out on any given road at any given time, and in every case it's an accident waiting to happen, he points out. AMONG TRAFFIC safety experts, the danger of driving while talking on the phone, legally or illegally, is undisputed. Yet the experts here say the chances of rationalizing the law - by outlawing driving while talking on a hand-held or hands-free phone - are nil, at least for the time being. Even Or Yarok (Green Light), the leading citizens' action group for traffic safety, isn't lobbying the Knesset to change the law. The organization puts out public service announcements urging drivers not to talk on the phone, it raises the issue with politicians and transportation officials, it is fully aware of the problem, but the idea of outlawing hands-free phones in the car remains way over the horizon. "Our position is that it's legal, but it's not recommended," says Or Yarok spokesman Elad Sasi, adding that on the same principle, the organization urges pedestrians not to cross the street while talking on the cellphone. Furthermore, he says, young drivers, being inexperienced and relatively accident-prone, are especially at risk while talking on the speaker-phone or headset, which is why some foreign countries forbid young drivers from doing it. Nevertheless, as far as the law here goes, all Sasi can say is, "If a law were proposed banning all talking on the phone while driving, Or Yarok would support it." One big reason why there's no campaign to outlaw the practice is that the danger involved is only now even starting to become known to the general public. The first high-profile media attention given to the issue came a couple of weeks ago with the start of The New York Times's front-page series, "Driven to Distraction." However, there's a Catch-22 here: People don't push their governments to change the law in part because they're unaware of the danger, but governments, by making it legal to drive while talking on the speaker-phone or headset, send people the clear message that driving while talking on a hands-free phone is not dangerous. Notes Shinhar: "I don't see Israel outlawing speaker-phones when it just passed a law requiring a speaker-phone if you want to talk while driving." One other thing that holds back a full-scale public campaign for a change in the law is the lack of a precise understanding of how dangerous the problem is. While logic dictates that impaired attention while driving causes accidents, Baginski of the police Traffic Accidents Section says, "It's very difficult to prove that a driver in an accident was talking on the speaker-phone at the moment of the crash." And while tests show that driving while talking on the phone increases the chance of a serious accident by four times, that's a finding from laboratory tests using driving simulators; there are still no test results based on actual traffic accidents that show how many occurred because a driver's attention was distracted by the phone, says Shinhar. However, a test in the US involving the installation of video cameras in 2,000 cars over a span of two years is being conducted that may well provide that important hard data, he says. But even after conclusive results are in and public awareness campaigns are conducted, it will still be hard or even impossible to outlaw all talking on the phone by drivers because, by now, daily life has become almost inconceivable without it. "We've reached a point where people spend so much time in the car because of all the congestion on the roads, so the car has become an extension of the workplace," says Shinhar. "We're a 24/7 working society. Everyone wants instant feedback on everything, so you're expected to be available everywhere, all the time. And the communications industry and auto industry are only too happy to provide the technology - speaker-phones, headsets, GPS, e-mail, text messaging and so on." THE PUBLIC demand for devices allowing them to talk in the car is so great that communications companies don't even have to lobby against the passage of new laws against them. "Why create antagonism when the public is already on your side?" Shinhar points out. This is an international problem. But for Israelis, it's especially dangerous. "We have the gift of gab, we spend more time on the phone than just about any other nation," says Shinhar, noting that a few years ago Israelis notched up the second-highest rate of cellphone use in the world, right after Finland, and people in this country remain among the world's leading cellphone addicts. "Israelis also tend to get very emotional and involved on the phone, gesturing with their hands and raising their voice - they get more into the conversation so it takes away more of their attention from driving," notes Baginski. In America, drivers seem to use their car phones for brief conversations, saving longer ones for home or the office when they can concentrate better, Tsal has observed. Adds Shinhar: "In America, people give you their office phone for work calls; in Israel everybody gives you their cellphone number. I've heard a lot of Israelis say to each other, 'I'm busy in the office today, call me later when I'll be in the car.'" Also, says Tsal, it should be kept in mind that Israelis were aggressive drivers even before speaker-phones and headsets were invented; the new technology only made them worse. The modern world is flooded with public service messages about the life-saving importance of safe driving; the "war on traffic accidents" is the ultimate motherhood-and-apple-pie issue. Still, a new, lethal device has become so popular among drivers that it's now a standard feature in cars - but as yet there is absolutely no will at the government or public level to do away with it. So unless and until this danger is eliminated by outlawing the use of hand-held and hands-free car phones while driving, the best that can be done, says Baginski, is to manage the danger. "Drivers in Israel aren't going to stop talking on the phone completely because they've gotten too used to it, but they should try to do it as little as possible, to limit it to emergencies," he says. "And if you find that you're getting all emotionally involved in the conversation, you should know that you're a danger to yourself, your passengers and everyone around you, so the thing to do is end the conversation, pull the car over, make the call and don't start driving again until you've calmed down." Requests for comment from the three main cellular phone companies - Cellcom, Pelephone and Orange - went unanswered by the time this article went to press. Nor was there any response to a request for comment from the office of Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz.