The Science of Mobile Phone Usage While Driving, in Today’s Social World

A sad story out of Canada made the news rounds recently, after Montrealer Mathieu Fortin created a new facebook page for his girlfriend. “I love you too and I will do all I can to make you happy, Mr. Fortin,” said Emy Brochu, in a text message that was reproduced on the new page. “Me too, bb,” Fortin replied, after a series of XXXXs, denoting kisses. The next set of messages, straight out of a heart-wrenching TV drama, involve a nervous Fortin asking her to contact him because he wants to “hear her beautiful voice.” After almost a day without receiving any message, he said “Is everything ok, my love? I’m a bit worried.” Unfortunately, the facebook page was dedicated to her memory, because she died that night by smashing into the back of a transport truck. A police investigation consequently showed that she was probably distracted by her mobile phone.

The Verdict is In

Risky Business

Perhaps no amount of statistics could capture just how dangerous it is for people to use cellphones while driving, better than a terrifying anecdote like this. But for better or for worse, I have both. I won’t dwell on the obvious points such as how “collision risk is four-to-six-times higher for drivers using cell phones.” I would rather mention points like how males and young people are more likely to use phones while driving; or that University of Utah researchers found in 2006 that texting or talking on the phone – regardless of having your hands free – can be just as detrimental as driving under the influence of alcohol. And I especially want to mention just how foolish we are about these facts.

Research by the Society for Risk Analysis reported on two studies on perceptions of risk from distractions. One study (with 200 people) showed that people believe that hand-held phones are one of the riskiest activities to do when driving, whereas hands-free hones were relatively safe. The other study (with over 1,300 people) found that almost half of everyone with a mobile phone reported having used it while driving, and that the probability of having an accident was perceived to be less for themselves than for their peers.

Indeed, you never think it could happen to you… until it happens to you. But should we blame phones for the danger on the roads?

The Phone Trend

A quick look into Transport Canada shows that the number of such phone-related traffic fatalities has actually decreased every year shown on record, going back from 1990. During that year, there were a recorded 3,963 fatal collisions, and 262,680 injuries in total, as a result of “motor vehicle crashes.” Those numbers dropped to 2,903 and 222,869 in 2000; and 2,209 and 172,883 in 2009.

The problem we have here is that these results tell us nothing about why the Canadian statistics indicate a decrease in dangerous crashes; so we can only speculate. But what’s alarming is that despite the fact that most drivers seem to agree that laws should restrict mobile phone usage while driving, the number of Canadian drivers using mobile phones is still increasing.

More than one third of Canadian drivers admit to using a cellphone while behind the wheel, which is the most the nation has ever seen. However, the good news is that their average time spent on the phone has decreased. In 2001, almost a fifth of survey respondents claimed to use their phones for over 30 minutes the previous week, whereas today that reported number is ten minutes or less.

So can mobile phones account for an increase in deaths? Not according to researchers at the University of Helsinki, Finland, in 2004. In a representative sample of 834 drivers, the researchers conclude that “phone-related accidents have not increased in line with the use of the mobilephones.”

However, technology in general is making it easier for us to be distracted. I wonder if in fifty years, we will have technology that automatically downloads advertisements directly onto the windshield of our cars, or into the TV screens inside; or flashy billboards every few meters all vying to grab our attention.

Yet I still want to stay away from the blame game. I think it’s easy to wag a finger at technology, especially if we can look at a specific one – like hardware such as mobile phones, or software such as Twitter. But the problem isn’t simply what we have; it’s the way we use it.

The Potential for Danger

Our Social World

Our global culture is in a constant state of change, since the internet is so young. We are only beginning to unlock the potential of our technological interconnectedness, and we are not yet accustomed to the technology we have available to us. We are used to them in terms of our lifestyle, but we still don’t know what kinds of psychological effects these devices yield for us in the long term. After all, many of the innovations we take for granted have come only in recent decades, or even years.

For example, our culture is now constantly online. We all know that we can be reached via email at any time; and aside from the inconvenience of timezones, it is often assumed that absence of a response is like an active decision. In other words: If you don’t respond to me quickly enough, you must be ignoring me. Therefore, one under-reported downside to our immense interconnectedness is our impatience.

It’s considered rude not to respond to emails, texts, and voice mails. It’s rude not to contact someone after a while. Because of the obvious distance, we don’t have any way of knowing what it is that someone’s doing – we just assume they are either busy or ignoring us. People feel more pressure than ever before to be connected, and I don’t think this is a good thing.

In the coming decades, we will have to begin to think about the line between connected and free. I’m sure the most connected people in the world – glued to their phone and email practically every hour of the day – don’t feel the same freedom that the rest of us enjoy. It would be worth it to think about what we value more with communication – quality or quantity.

It’s our responsibility as members of society to collectively decide whether we want people to feel pressure to answer that phone while driving on the road, or wait until it’s safer to do so. Likewise, it’s our decision whether or not to answer that phone.

Our Technological World

Phones aren’t the only thing that can and do impair driving, though. Loud music and simply chatting to someone in the car (not to mention children screaming behind the driver) can be distracting as well. There’s just not a lot of grant money in universities going towards studies to determine whether screaming kids affects driving – but it can.

I believe that it largely has to do with context. I personally don’t think people should listen to music too loudly in the car at any time. I’m worried about blocking a police car or ambulance in an emergency, or any other random event that might require the ability to hear something outside the vehicle. But on a long straight-away with no one else around, I don’t see much of a problem with conversing or listening to music. It’s all relative. The very undesirable extreme would be to ban all noise within a car, essentially driving portable libraries. But even if this was safer, no one would want their rights violated like that. We want the privacy to listen to the radio or anything else.

But no one conveys the dangers of technology being a distraction on the road better than Montrealer Fortin himself. Reading his girlfriend’s last messages is devastatingly heartbreaking for him. He sadly had no idea that his girlfriend was driving at the time of his text conversation.

The facebook page he made is to warn people of the danger of driving while texting, and I think I speak for everyone when I say that we appreciate him telling his story. It is very brave and responsible of him to put the most painful experience of his life into the media in the hopes that he could prevent a similar tragedy later. As Yahoo! reports:

“The police investigation showed the use of a cellphone while driving was the cause of the accident,” Fortin wrote on Facebook. “This conclusion came as a shock because during the tragedy, I was in a discussion with her.”

Fortin says reading the last messages shatters his heart into a million pieces.

He urges people to learn from his story.

“An accident can happen quickly,” he writes. “I hope every time you look at your cellphone while you’re driving, you think of Emy and those who loved her.

“At what time is a text or an email more important than life itself? At what point is something on your phone more important than the people that you love?”

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