Girl TORQUE: Cell phones in the car

AutoTrader NZ
Published 3 September 2020

I was listening to the radio when the topic of in-car cell phone use came up. Soon I was steaming. Why don’t these people do a bit of reading before they mouth off?

One idiot dismissed reams of international research with ‘that’s rubbish’ and proposed his own, completely uninformed opinion based on what he called common sense.

But the trouble with common sense is it’s not that common. And it’s completely objective – what you see as sense is someone else’s idiocy.

I’ve always thought in-car texting safer than talking on a cell phone while driving. After all, you can txt a word at a red light, then another each time you stop; you can read a txt while stopped in traffic. Right?

But a man was killed on my road home because a local crossed the centre line while texting. And that’s the problem – not everyone makes appropriate decisions while driving. If they did, no-one would drink and drive and everyone would strap their kids in.

We all think we’re sensible and we’re doing it right, and lots of us aren’t, possibly including you and me. But where do you draw the line?

Politicians know where to draw it – anywhere that’ll get the popular vote. I suspect that’s why using a hand-held cell phone while driving may be made illegal, while a hands-free isn’t. Yet both are equally dangerous.

Yes I know, it doesn’t seem logical, but time after time research has shown the safety difference is negligible. Yes, dialling or answering may distract, but only for a moment. It’s the distraction of the conversation, with someone who can’t see the conditions you’re driving in, that’s the problem.

So why aren’t passengers as bad? That was the challenge thrown to Sam Charlton, an associate professor in the Traffic and Road Safety Research Group, part of Waikato uni’s Psychology department. He was lobbying to ban cell phone use while driving when the previous Labour Government’s Road Safety Minister, Harry Duynhoven, issued a challenge. If talking on a cell phone while driving should be banned, why not ban chatting with passengers? Why ban one, and not the other?

Good point. Charlton got to work.

He used a very clever driving simulator – it uses a real car, with the visuals a faithful copy of real New Zealand roads – and pairs of people who knew each other to measure the risk of chatting on a hand-held cell phone, a hands-free, with a passenger in the car – or to someone who could see the road conditions, but wasn’t in the car with the driver.

The result? Using a cell phone while driving is so dangerous it would be unethical to mimic the experiment on real roads. And driving with a passenger is much safer.

The reason appears to be that passengers can see what’s going on. Charlton found that passengers slowed their rates of conversation as the car approached a hazard, and often warned the driver of approaching hazards. Charlton called this ‘conversation modulation’ and it doesn’t happen in cell phone use.

Charlton expanded the experiment by using a cell phone that issued warning tones at trouble spots like junctions, and found driving performance was almost as good as when passengers weren’t talking at all.

Conversation modulation is key to avoiding the adverse affects of in-car chat, and means that talking to an in-car passenger is nowhere near as risky as talking on a cell phone.

New research? Not really. It was published last year. Has anyone listened; has the Government paid attention? You’d have to hope so. But I fear that making a popular decision may win over making an effective one.

Whether the Government should be making such calls instead of paying for driver education that would see us making better decisions ourselves is another topic entirely.

Read previous Girl TORQUE columns here.

Jacqui Madelin is our expert car reviewer and on the board of the AA Driver Education Foundation.

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