On Mobile Phones and Driving

November 5, 2009

Worth repeating, from Jakob Nielsen’s excellent newsletter:

In an opinion poll, the New York Times asked whether Americans wanted to outlaw mobile phone use while driving:

> http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/02/technology/02textingside.html

80% of respondents said that using a HAND-HELD cellphone while driving should be illegal.

But almost 90% said that it should be legal to talk on a HANDS-FREE cellphone.

Completely OPPOSITE INTUITIONS about the danger of these two ways of using a mobile phone. This despite the fact that all studies show that it’s EQUALLY DANGEROUS to use hands-free and hand-held mobile phones while driving.

Research has found that the danger comes from the cognitive distraction of carrying out a conversation with somebody who’s not in the car. The problem is not holding the phone with one hand while driving with the other. The problem is the conversation and the way it lays claim to limited cognitive resources.

This finding is completely counter-intuitive: how can it endanger your life to carry on a simple, everyday task like a conversation? The survey clearly demonstrates that people’s perception of danger is completely divorced from the actual danger.

When driving, you are piloting a power plant, and a single mistake will cause human beings to die. This is a task worthy of your full attention.


One Response to “On Mobile Phones and Driving”

  1. Robert Says:

    It might be scientifically right, but it’s still totally counter-intuitive! Should we ban talking between the driver and the passengers, too?

    Personally I’d suspect that a big problem is just that hands-free phones suck and require the driver to look away from where he’s supposed to be looking too often. And if you need to push a button, the button will be farther away from your hand than if you’ve just got the phone in the hand.

    Having a small phone in the hand is a bad distraction, but maybe having the entire car being your phone is just as bad.

    Engineers should figure out less distracting ways to build phones. But until that’s done – let’s ban cell phones, of course.

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