If you were in a car with a driver who reached into the glove compartment, grabbed a bottle of whisky and took a healthy swig, your reaction would probably veer between shock and horror. Now what if that driver reached for his phone to tap out a quick text message instead? You may not be shocked, but you should be horrified.
A growing body of research is confirming what many people (hopefully) understand intuitively: using your phone will driving a car is dangerous. In short, it's something you simply shouldn't do.
Now before you accuse us, of all people, of being technophobes, let's be clear. There's no question that mobile phones have been a net-plus for humanity - even, perhaps especially, in cars. If you get lost, they can offer maps and turn-by-turn directions. If you break down, they're your call for help. They hold thousands of songs, so you're not fumbling with giant binders of CDs.
But it's time to acknowledge the dark side too: they can be deadly.
Worse Than Alcohol
In 2006, researchers at the University of Utah sought to compare drunk driving - the gold standard for irresponsible and potentially fatal automobile behavior - against driving while talking on a cell phone. They discovered that using the phone was a greater impairment than being legally intoxicated. A 2012 study conducted by the UK's Institute of Advanced Motorists produced a similar result.
While tests confirm the danger, assembling data on the role of phones in crashes is inherently difficult. Unlike alcohol, there's no readily identifiable indicator that the phone was the culprit (or contributor) to an accident. Still the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 3,092 people were killed in crashes with a distracted driver (a category that includes talkers, texters, and those fumbling around with make-up and other distractions) in 2010. The toll of the injured was significantly higher, some 416,000 people in a single year.
It's not hard to see why. People look at their phones for an average of five seconds at a time. If you're driving 55 miles per hour down the highway, you can travel the length of a football field without eyeing the road. If you're texting and driving, you're 23 times more likely to crash. A study by Australia's Monash University found that young drivers who sent text messages while driving were four times more likely to get into a serious (i.e. injury causing) crash than those who didn't.
Younger drivers are more at risk: 11 percent of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted.
According to Pew Research, 40 percent of all American teens say they have been in a car when the driver used a cell phone in a way that put people in danger.
And it's not just your wandering eyes and diverted hands that are the problem: it's your wandering brain.
There's a common misperception - fostered by "hands-free" driving laws and the proliferation of voice-activated technology like Apple's Siri - that it's just the act of looking away from the road and occupying your hands with tiny screens and keyboards that's the root cause of the problem. Simply fix that, by slapping on a Bluetooth headset or fining anyone caught with a phone in their hand, the thinking goes, and you've addressed the problem. In fact, it appears to be the very act of diverting your brain's attention from driving that's a significant part of the problem.
A study from a team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that there was a measureable decrease in driving ability when subjects were talking on the phone (whether the phone is handheld or hand's-free). The researchers used MRI scans to observe how driving brains reacted when concentrating solely on the road and how they reacted while trying to drive and talk simultaneously. They found a 37 percent deterioration in the brain's ability to perform the spatial processing necessary for safe driving if the person was talking. In other words, forcing your brain to multitask while driving ups the risk factor, no matter what your hands are doing.
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Safety Research aggregated the results of multiple distracted driving studies to reach a similar conclusion: "Current research does not support the decision to allow hands-free phone use while driving."
No surprise, then, that the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) recommended a total ban on texting and talking while driving - both hand's free and otherwise.
Fighting Fire with Fire
While few people expect a total ban (the NTSB has no rule-making power) any time soon, steps are being taken to curb phone-related distracted driving, including plenty of moralizing and shaming (otherwise known as "education"). Every major phone maker, cellular network, car company and industry group stands firmly against the use of phones while driving. Not all are categorically opposed to "hands-free use" and many, naturally, want the focus on all manners of distractions, not just mobile devices. But plenty of information is available online for motorists and parents to educate themselves about the issue.
Technology, too, is being brought to bear on the issue.
The U.S. Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, said in a recent interview that the Obama administration was considering technology that would disable phones in moving cars. "I think the technology is there and I think you're going to see the technology become adaptable in automobiles to disable these cell phones. We need to do a lot more if we're going to save lives," LaHood told MSNBC.
Phone jammers in cars are, at this date, illegal. In 2011, a Chinese firm briefly sold a product called TxTStopper that jammed all inbound cellular signals in a car before getting a cease-and-desist from the Federal Communications Commission. Still, tech firms and automakers are exploring less intrusive ways to help you tune-out your electronics and tune-in on the road. Take Twist, an app that taps the phone's GPS sensor and traffic conditions and sends text messages to friends and family with your status and expected arrival time - saving you the trouble.
Car makers are getting into the act too. Ford's MyKey technology is a programmable car key for young drivers with a "Do Not Disturb" feature that blocks incoming calls to Bluetooth-connected phones (it can also limit top speeds and radio volume and generally remove all the irresponsible fun out of being a teenage driver). Ford is also researching technology that monitors biometric signals from your body to determine if you're distracted or under stress (i.e. you're registering high blood pressure, higher body temperature or faster breathing). If it detects such signs, it can activate a "do not disturb" function on a phone - provided it's synced up with Ford's in-dash entertainment system via Bluetooth.
Finally, and most promisingly, is the self-driving car. Google, among others, has been road-testing vehicles which don't need a human driver at all. You could talk, text, eat - heck, sleep - while the car navigated its way to your destination. And while the concept sounds futuristic, Google has already secured a license for its self-driving vehicle in Nevada and California is working on rules to permit self-driving cars on its roadways.
Being Smart with Your Phone
At the end of the day, distracted driving isn't the fault of phones (or tasty sandwiches) and it's probably not going to be reversed by some intrusive, Big Brother-esque technology or over-zealous policing. The tide will turn when enough people realize and internalize the fact that it's dangerous - and behave accordingly.