It’s the Conversation, Not the Phone, Silly!

two people conversing
two people conversing
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Hands-free technology was supposed to make driving safer by allowing people to communicate using their cell phones without engaging their hands in holding the device.

Has this technology made driving safer than it was with handheld phones? Yes. Ample empirical evidence exists to suggest exactly that. Even if we move past empirical evidence, simple common sense would suggest that being able to have two hands at the wheel would be safer than one while negotiating a sharp turn. Not having to be visually engaged to dial a number and using voice dialing instead would obviously cause less interference than looking away from the road. The removal of visual and motor interference is definitely an improvement.

But the real question is, has this technology actually made driving safe? Not in my opinion. But you don’t have to take my word for it. All the following information in this article is not my ‘opinion’ but is actually the result of academic research and carefully conducted replicable studies.

So, how do hands-free devices interfere with driving?

Since we have different attentional resources for different kinds of tasks, the auditory task of having a cell phone conversation should not interfere with the primarily visual task of driving. However, both cell phone conversations and driving require the use of cognitive processes such as comprehension, memory retrieval, and depending on the nature of the conversation — problem-solving and decision making. The attentional resources fueling all these processes are shared and therefore susceptible to interference. When a conversation is engaging enough, attentional resources will be diverted to it, and the concurrent task of driving will suffer.

Pedestrian crossing sign
Pedestrian crossing sign
Slowed reaction times due to talking on a phone while driving can cause avoidable mishaps| Photo by william f. santos on Unsplash

The most common performance decrement is a slowed reaction time. The delay in response could be the difference between braking in time and hitting a pedestrian.

Cognitive tunneling refers to the restriction of attention to one particular task or area of vision. It can lead to the ignorance of other important tasks critical to overall performance. For example, in driving this could mean missing a traffic light change, a merging car in the periphery, or a pedestrian at the crosswalk.

Image for post
Image for post
Engaging conversations can restrict our attention| Photo by Jakob Søby on Unsplash

Cell phone conversations, especially those we deem important enough to have while driving, are interesting, engaging, and demanding. As a result, they place a high load on our working memory to follow what is being said and to produce an appropriate reply. This causes deficiencies in our change detection performance and reduces the area we scan with our eyes.

One of the primary arguments against the ban of hands-free devices while driving is this: How is a hands-free cellphone conversation any different from having a conversation with your co-passengers?

two people in a car
two people in a car
Conversing on a phone is different from conversing with your co-passenger| Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

On the face of it, this seems to be a valid point. Both kinds of conversations do not involve hands, are had simultaneously while driving, and could be about the same topics.

Sure, the two situations are similar, but not identical. In fact, the key aspect that differentiates the two is the one that makes hands-free cell phone conversations while driving so dangerous.

While conversing with your co-passengers, you are both experiencing the same shared environment both inside and outside the vehicle. In other words, you have a shared sense of situation awareness. If you are driving through a busy intersection or merging onto a highway, your co-passengers can modulate or pause the conversation as appropriate to the situation. The person on the opposite side of the phone is not experiencing the same situation that you are. They have no idea about where you are driving, what kind of traffic there is, or the weather conditions you are facing. Therefore, they cannot do what your co-passengers can. As a result, when the driving task gets harder in harsh winds or on a busy intersection, the person on the phone cannot help you free up additional resources (which would be otherwise used to converse) needed to deal with this increased difficulty.

My friend, who read this article said that this was all good but do I think this will actually make people stop using hands-free devices while driving? I don’t know, will it?

Written by

Aviation Geek | Grad student — writing to take a break from writing | Making Human Factors accessible one article at a time

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store