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US Agency Blocked Cellphone / Driving Safety Study 464

Posted by kdawson
from the no-one-wants-to-know dept.
By now you've probably seen the NY Times's long piece on distracted driving — about how most drivers and most legislators willfully ignore the evidence of the dangers of talking on a cellphone, texting, and other electronic distractions while behind the wheel. According to this article, cellphone use while driving causes over 1,000 fatalities a year in the US. Another shoe has now dropped: it seems that the US National Highway Safety Administration blocked a proposed definitive study of the risks. The NHSA now cites concerns about angering Congress. Two consumer safety groups had filed a FOIA request for documents about the aborted study, and the Times has now made the documents public — including the research behind the request for a study of 10,000 drivers.
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US Agency Blocked Cellphone / Driving Safety Study

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  • Angering Congress? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by carp3_noct3m (1185697) <slashdotNO@SPAMwarriors-shade.net> on Monday July 20, 2009 @09:37PM (#28764715)

    Two words for most of congress. "FUCK YOU"
    Just cause that's what they do to America everyday.
    Who cares if we "anger congress" , we should have more things that anger congress. A government should be afraid of it's people and not the other way around. Fuck why can't I live like a normal free person in antarctica.... less booze for me...out

  • stunned (Score:4, Interesting)

    by bloodhawk (813939) on Monday July 20, 2009 @09:40PM (#28764741)
    I am honestly completely stunned by this article. I had thought the majority of countries had passed laws about the use of cell phones while driving, I did not know the US was so far behind. Many studies in other countries have shown use of cell phone (even hands free) is the equivalent to driving with a mid range blood alcohol level or worse and has been banned in most western countries with hefty fines for using your cell phone while driving.
  • by soundguy (415780) on Monday July 20, 2009 @09:40PM (#28764743) Homepage

    What happened to the can-do, damn-the-torpedoes attitude that got us to the moon?

    Lawsuits and juries of idiots happened

  • Dangers of blocking (Score:5, Interesting)

    by syousef (465911) on Monday July 20, 2009 @09:42PM (#28764755) Journal

    Lets say you block cell phone usage. Does your technology exclude calls to emergency services? If not that's going to lead to deaths. Does your technology differentiate between the driver and a passenger? (I don't know how you'd even try to do that).

    For starters we could enforce the existing laws. Caught talking on your cellphone twice, hand over your license.

    Better would be to teach drivers to better cope with distractions including cell phone usage. If a pilot be required to be communicating on a radio while they land and take off - in a fast moving vehicle that falls out of the sky if not kept within parameters, at the edge of those parameters - I think drivers can be taught to drive safely on a cell phone. Not just left to their own devices to work out how, but taught. Where are the studies on how effective it is to teach drivers to drive while distracted by cell phones and other modern devices?

  • Re:scary thing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by icebike (68054) on Monday July 20, 2009 @09:52PM (#28764851)

    And the interesting part is that having a bluetooth headset provides no significant improvement.

    Its not holding the phone to your ear that causes accidents, its the cognitive distraction of being on the phone with someone who can not see the dangers in front of the vehicle.

    Passengers in the vehicle (at least those over 12) STFU where the driver is busy or when a situation develops, and their silence or their warnings actually calls attention to some dangers.

    But this verifies other studies that state that bluetooth or earbuds add nothing to safety.

    One can only hope that over time people learn to deal with and shut out the distraction, because I don't see cell phones getting restricted for drivers anytime soon.

  • I don't buy it (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 20, 2009 @10:04PM (#28764935)

    Look: I've heard the statistics, and I don't drive while on the cell phone anymore simply because it's illegal... but, I don't see how talking to someone causes this kind of distraction. Texting? Sure, I'm on board with that one. When you have to take your eyes away from the road, that's fine. But calling someone and talking to them? How is that any worse than talking to someone next to you? I'm all for making laws that make everyone safer, and I don't think the current law in my state (CA) is particularly unjust, but I do think that pursuing this further is a waste of time and money.

  • Re:scary thing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by acrobg (1175095) on Monday July 20, 2009 @10:11PM (#28764991) Journal
    Out here in California, there is a law about not talking on the phone while driving without a handsfree device. The problem is that now people all the time are just using their phone as before, but spending three times the effort hiding their phone so the cop on the side of the road doesn't pull them over. So now, rather than them just talking on the phone, they're talking, trying to hide it, and driving with whatever level of brain power they have left.
  • Re:scary thing (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 20, 2009 @10:25PM (#28765107)

    Has anyone done a study on how sound quality affects distraction? I would be inclined to believe that your reasons are a larger factor, but I know I've done stupid things while walking/cooking/etc on a cell phone because I'm having to concentrate so hard to just hear and understand the other person.

  • Re:scary thing (Score:2, Interesting)

    by thrawn_aj (1073100) on Monday July 20, 2009 @11:06PM (#28765391)

    Passengers in the vehicle (at least those over 12) STFU where the driver is busy or when a situation develops, and their silence or their warnings actually calls attention to some dangers.

    You know, I'm totally on board (and have been since I learned to drive) with the 'no cellphones while driving', to the extent that I don't even answer the phone unless I can safely pull over (usually at a street parking spot). But please, PUHLEEEEZ spare me the bromide about the distinction between cell phone conversations vs. those with passengers. That is simply a disingenuous argument - you're relying on the sensibility of people on the passenger side of the argument (to mind the road hazards) while casually dismissing the sensibility of the cellphone using driver (who clearly cannot be trusted and must be protected from himself). As you said yourself, if you wish to be consistent with the policy of no distractions, you would HAVE to ban all kids, especially infants from cars unless there is someone besides the driver to take care of them. This would inconvenience 99% of the members of say, a rabid organization like MADD now wouldn't it? :P

    My point here simple - cellphones are no more or less dangerous than ANY kind of distraction encountered by the driver - be it hot coffee, chatty passengers or crying infants in the back seat. The reason cellphones are banned is ONLY (I repeat, ONLY) because it is the only thing you CAN ban without causing mass riots. I actually sympathize with that but again, please don't try to justify this inconsistency - it can't be justified in any logical way.

    Not trying to flamebait here but the whole cellphone-hate from so-called sophisticated people is getting increasingly inconsistent. To give another example of this inconsistency - I've read opinions by Bill Bryson, the renowned travel author, someone I admire greatly (obviously not for this) where he repeatedly (and entirely without humor) rags on people who talk on cellphones in public. Now, as much as that practice bothers me too (and which I again, personally refrain from doing), it is the PUREST form of horseshit to distinguish cellphone conversations from those with fellow passengers. But I've seen several "sophisticates" having heated discussions with no regard for the people around them. Personally, I couldn't give a shit either way (the inventor of earphones deserves a Nobel IMHO :P). But someone please tell me exactly how (for all practical purposes, not because someone APPROVES of one kind of conversation over the other for anachronistic/reactionary reasons) cellphones are any less annoying than ... well ... most people in public :P.

    /end rant (well, just one more thing - next time I see a bunch of high school kids play crap on their designer phone/music player/vibrator/whatever on the bus WITHOUT earphones, I'm gonna shove it up their whatsits :P)
    //27 and already senile
    ///get off my lawn *sigh*

  • This is easy to fix. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Therefore I am (1284262) on Monday July 20, 2009 @11:20PM (#28765501)
    The insurance companies have the whip hand here. If they refused road accident claims for drivers on the phone/texting at the moment of an accident the problem would instantly go away. . . . . . . . If you also added large fines for bosses who demand that their employees answer when driving, then that would also go a long way to help reduce accidents.
  • Re:scary thing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Al Dimond (792444) on Monday July 20, 2009 @11:21PM (#28765515) Journal

    There are differences between cell phones and other distractions; although I'm sure there's a distraction factor from both radios and conversations with passengers, the cell phone conversation demands more from the driver than either of these for the following reasons:

    1. The driver can very easily tune out the radio. He knows that the radio doesn't care. Often when I'm driving and listening to a CD I'll realize that my favorite song played two tracks ago and I didn't even notice it go by. That might be less true of radio, especially if you're listening to a stimulating discussion, but at least you're not in the conversation and expected to reply. In long, boring stretches of freeway driving music can help keep a driver alert, while it's easy to just ignore when the situation requires it.

    2. Passengers in the car with the driver can pick up non-verbal communication from the driver that requires less effort than speaking. A passenger knows when a difficult merge is coming up, or can look at the driver's eyes to see when he needs to really concentrate. In my experience, also, people on the phone expect answers quicker than people talking in-person. A lot of the ways we stall for time when responding to people aren't verbal -- one of the big ones is just being present. Phone calls tend to be a very demanding way to have a conversation. Often passengers help drivers navigate and operate the radio and heat or AC.

  • by TubeSteak (669689) on Monday July 20, 2009 @11:46PM (#28765679) Journal

    has actually gone down as a percentage of the population

    Sometimes you have to deal with real numbers and not percentages.
    In this case, the conclusion is correct, but does not tell the whole story:
    Deaths have remained essentially flat.

    Despite vast increases in vehicle safety, the difference between the highest and lowest deaths is ~12,000.
    Even though that is a significant fraction of the total deaths, 12,000 is almost a rounding error for a population >225 million.

    If they want to do studies, why not do them on cell phones as well as other common things people do while driving? What effect does playing the radio, changing the CD, programming and following your GPS, eating and drinking, or anything else have on your driving?

    The real question that should be asked is:
    How come >40,000 people are still dying yearly in car accidents after 34 years of technological advancement?

  • by fractoid (1076465) on Monday July 20, 2009 @11:58PM (#28765743) Homepage
    +1, Sad But True. It's like people being far more afraid of sharks or tigers than of killer bees, which are actually more likely to kill them. Or like the way that when you're crossing the street, you'd never step out in front of a semi but at the same distance and speed you'd quite happily step out in front of a mini, completely forgetting that half a ton of mini will kill you just as dead as fifty tons of semi.

    I don't get the 'get out of the pool' thing, though. Doesn't this pool have floodlights and other assorted metal objects projecting far above the surface of the water? And even if lightning does strike nearby, the pool water is far from pure and will probably conduct much better than the people in it. Unless you have a part of you sticking further above the water than the floodlights and shade cloth frames and so forth, you won't be in the path of the current.
  • Re:scary thing (Score:2, Interesting)

    by TheLink (130905) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @12:10AM (#28765807) Journal
    The other difference is they're not calling for a ban against talking with passengers. Do they actually gather accident stats on drivers being distracted because they were talking to passengers?

    While cellphone use is definitely a potential distraction and reduces focus on driving, I claim that most people who can drive properly can actually learn to talk over the phone while driving safely.

    HOWEVER just like learning to drive, it is a skill that requires training and practice under controlled circumstances. Most people can't automatically drive a car properly on their first try, much less use a phone while driving and answering mentally challenging questions.

    I'm not aware of anyone providing or requiring training, exams and licenses for that. I doubt that'll happen because it's not _necessary_ for most people to talk while driving (whether it's to a passenger or someone else far away). If implemented we'd have to have stickers or something to indicate that the driver is licensed to use a phone while driving. The benefit-cost ratio might not be good enough. Better to just improve the average driving ability with better training.

    FWIW, Michael Schumacher used to chat with his pit crew while making really fast F1 laps.
  • by Man Eating Duck (534479) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @12:20AM (#28765861)

    It's not about the conversation - which, unless you're unable to talk to somebody in your car and drive at the same time, in which case I would advise you to avoid chewing gum if you plan on walking - it's about holding the phone uncomfortably.

    You're wrong. Anyone but a completely inexperienced driver can keep the car on the road without hitting anything even while chatting on the phone - if nothing unexpected happens. I've never had a problem myself, still I avoid using my phone while driving nowadays. At rare occasions you'll need all the attention you can muster, if for instance a kid or another bad driver does something you didn't expect. Talking on a cell phone takes away a bit of that attention, and I've read studies like this one [hfes.org] where the conclusion is that talking on your cellphone makes you as accident-prone as a drunk driver.
    Google yields plenty more, here's an abstract from another one. [utah.edu]

    Summary: This research assessed the effects of cell phone conversations on driving.
    Our first study found that subjects engaged in cell phone conversations using either
    a hand-held or hands-free device, were more than twice as likely to miss simulated
    traffic signals than when they were not distracted by the cell phone conversation. By
    contrast, performance was not disrupted by listening to radio broadcasts or listening
    to a book on tape. Our second study, using a high-fidelity driving simulator, found
    that subjects conversing on a hands-free cell phone were more likely to get into
    traffic accidents. Analysis of driving profiles revealed that cell phone users exhibited
    a sluggish response to changing traffic patterns and attempted to compensate by
    increasing their following distance. We suggest that active participation in a cell
    phone conversation disrupts performance by diverting attention to an engaging
    cognitive context other than the one immediately associated with driving.

    You shouldn't ignore the facts on this one, if nothing else to err on the side of caution. How many drivers do you know that will admit they're less than averagely skilled? Still, half of all drivers must be, and I don't want them to rear-end me while planning their dinner.

  • Re:scary thing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by QuoteMstr (55051) <dan.colascione@gmail.com> on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @12:59AM (#28766071)

    Laws only apply to little people like us.

  • by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @02:07AM (#28766367)

    What I don't understand is why this isn't drilled into people's heads, much the same as my flight instructor did for me.

    Well, for one thing, driver licensing is a joke in the USA. Its more about paying the fees and submitting yourself to their database than it is about road safety. If driver licensing were as strict as aviation licensing requirements, there would be all kinds of improvements. There would also be a lot more people driving without licenses, kinda negating much of the benefit.

  • Re:scary thing (Score:2, Interesting)

    by hattig (47930) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @06:59AM (#28767767) Journal

    hot coffee, chatty passengers or crying infants in the back seat

    First: Drink it in the car park, not whilst driving. Canned or bottled drinks (sports cap) are best for driving.

    Second: They shut up when the driver has to do something complex.

    Third: They can be safely ignored.

    Also: Passenger talk is high fidelity. Mobile phone talk is often grainier and harder to understand. It takes up far more cognitive time. Also a passenger can wait for an answer (it's one of those things about being there with the person you are talking to), whereas there's an expectation of fast answers on the phone.

    I'm in favour of mobile phones having a driving mode when they're plugged into a car handsfree:

    1) Auto-answer calls in the "driving profile".

    2) "The person you are calling is currently driving. If your call is important, press 1 to be connected or 2 to send a voice message immediately."

    3a) Option 1: The phone will notify the driver that a call is incoming, who it is, and require the driver to answer "Take call" or "Drop call" or whatever.

    3b) Option 1: AND/OR: Any accidents that happen when on the phone are blamed equally on both halves of the conversation. This might stop pushy work bosses being so pushy and requiring people driving to answer under threat of losing their jobs. Why would anyone willingly answer their phone whilst driving if it was their boss on the line! I can understand the wife or kids.

    4) Option 2: The phone will repeat the voice message automatically to the driver. No requirement to go to voice mail and faff. "You received a message from X: blah blah". Driver can say "Repeat". Wife can leave messages "Pick up some milk and eggs darlin'" and the like.

  • Re:News report (Score:3, Interesting)

    by EsbenMoseHansen (731150) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @07:36AM (#28767961) Homepage

    But that is exactly the trouble. I know people who can and do text blind, with one hand. They could text while being only very slightly distracted. Then there are people who drive into stuff while looking at the landscape, or talking to someone on the other seat. And I know a lot of people who would not be distracted by your cute girl :) I see no other reasonable legislative route than "though shall not engage in overly distracting behavior while driving.", and letting the police & judges handle the rest.

  • Re:News report (Score:3, Interesting)

    by TheCarp (96830) * <sjc&carpanet,net> on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @09:55AM (#28769191) Homepage

    Actually, like many things, it depends entirely on the individual.... and honestly.... 1000 fatalities a year in a country of 300 million people is barely statistically significant. I recently went to look up the number of murders by serial killers in the US in a year, and some numbers put that in the same range.

    Given the numbers of people who drive... I think we can call those relatively similar risks.

    I have texted while driving. I have seen people do it well, I have seen people do it poorly (I rate myself as somewhere in the middle, but I do try to compensate by trading off taking a lot longer to type in the text by taking my eyes off the screen and back onto the road with every letter.

    I hear some people can txt without looking at all... I am not that good.

    The same is true for driving while talking... some people are nearly as good at is as they drive normally, others are total retards and will sit for 5 minutes on the inside of a rotary letting traffic entering pass while they yap away (yes, I have seen this)

    Frankly, I think that our government has far better things to worry about. This is such a non-issue.

    They would help more people if they directed their attention elsewhere.

    -Steve

  • Re:stunned (Score:3, Interesting)

    by elrous0 (869638) * on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @11:15AM (#28770237)
    IIRC, the Mythbusters [wikipedia.org] tested this very thing about as objectively as they could (with multiple passes by various drivers on a set obstacle course) and did indeed find that cellphone usage had more of a negative effect on driving than moderate intoxication. For what it's worth.

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