Question of the Day: Do Handsfree Laws Do Anything?

Jonny Lieberman
by Jonny Lieberman
question of the day do handsfree laws do anything

Today, as you know, is July 1st. To celebrate, California and Washington State have passed laws mandating handsfree devices; stick a phone to your ear and get a fine. Not just a fine of course. You have to (at least in CA) pay a gas surcharge fee, as well. These laws won't do a damn thing to increase safety; the supposed reason why they were passed. Here's my thinking… When you want to call someone, you still have to dial. Sure, lots of phones have voice recognition. With my supposed "smart phone" I say, "Call mom mobile" and get back, "Calling Tom Vogel." But here's the real cincher. This morning, for the first time, I used a handsfree device. I loved it. Normally when I'm driving I try to get off the phone as quickly as possible. I need a hand to shift gears and my arm gets tired. But with the ear dongle, I talked for half an hour– way longer than I normally would if I were holding a phone to my ear. So, does my State feel that the physical act of holding my hand to my ear is the danger? Because methinks these new laws will have more people driving and talking longer. Your thoughts?

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  • Pch101 Pch101 on Jul 02, 2008
    PCH101, do you not drive on American roads? Or are you the guy on the phone that I’m avoiding because you wander from lane to lane never using a turn signal, or speeding up and slowing down randomly, or are you the guy that almost hit me in a crosswalk as he was turning (I had the walk light) because he was too busy yakking to actually pay attention? Please, you are offering the sort of reply that frankly just makes me want to write you off. As it turns out, I'm a two-hands-on-the-wheel, turn signaling, pass left/ keep right, vehemently anti-tailgating, keep-that-damn-coffee-out-of-my-sacred-car kind of guy. So thanks, but no. But I like facts to go with my morning coffee, and I don't see them. The reality of traffic accident data does not correlate with kneejerk reactions like yours. As Landcrusher notes, the comparisons to DUI are total hyperbole. Last I checked, phone handsets do not produce slurred speech or chemically altered perception or motor skills. I can actually make a phone call and walk straight at the same time. (I could also chew gum, but that would be a bit rude to smack gum while having a conversation.) If phones were the equivalent of DUI, there should be stacks of bodies all over the highways. The increase in accident, death and injury rates should be notable, as phone usage is quite common. As it turns out, it is actually the opposite -- these figures are falling steadily, as they have for decades. For whatever reason, in this case, reality refuses to correlate with hypothetical studies. I don't know about you, but I tend to use reality for forming my conclusions. In practice, what seems to be happening is that (a) the loss in reaction time is slight (the numerous studies that I've seen conclude that this amounts to about 1/8th of a second) and (b) people adjust for this time when using a phone, effectively negating the loss. Phones Kill is the modern equivalent of Speed Kills. Sounds nice on paper, but isn't true in practice. What kills people is rude driving, intoxicated driving, self-centered driving and those who believe that every road incident is someone else's fault, because it's more fun to point fingers than it is to take responsibility.

  • 66Nova 66Nova on Jul 02, 2008

    My thoughts about cell phones are not just anecdotally based. I have seen the research that indicates strongly that humans simply do not multi task, we just think we do. The brain scan stuff is absolutely fascinating. I just can't discount the hard science that says that the mental drain that a phone conversation involves interferes with the ability to commit attention to other tasks. Here is a link to one of the engineering docs, hardly kneejerk, that discusses inattention far more eloquently than I can:

  • Thinx Thinx on Jul 02, 2008

    Driving with one hand while having a distracting conversation on a cellphone makes a good driver marginally worse... but it makes a bad driver significantly more incompetent. Maybe it is just the demographic that I have a chance to observe, but the a large number of [insert stereotypical driver] people I see almost treat the phone-conversation as priority-1, and actually piloting their 2-ton vehicle as the distraction. So yeah, while it won't solve everything, IMO, it is definitely a step in the right direction.

  • Landcrusher Landcrusher on Jul 02, 2008

    mdf, Well put. 66Nova, Let's say we take your basic point, and PCH's, and agree with both of them: A: Cell phone usage is distracting and leads to a severe deterioration of driving skill. B: There has been no statistical increase in accidents and fatalities that would justify the concern over cell phone distractions to driving. Okay. There is no contradiction. I see a lot of room for other facts and studies to explain the present situation. What I don't see is a lot of reason for legislation. We aren't dependent on researchers and scientists to tell us the results of cell phone use in cars. The data is plain to see because so many people are now doing it, and the sky has not fallen. Perhaps we need a study to see what percentage of miles driven are actually done on a cell phone. Then, we could compare the accident rate of people actually on a cell phone with those not on a cell phone and come up with a useful number. What I really want to see is some study on the variance of driver ability even without a cell phone. Then tell me what you will do about THAT. Certainly it would make sense to take drivers off the road who simply can't safely operate a vehicle, but most states aren't even trying. The legislatures are responding to the whining of the voters, and if they want to pass the hands free law, then it won't really cost us much, but it's still pandering. You can show all the evidence you want, but since it's not seemingly affecting the overall situation, it should not lead to new laws.