Safety & Compliance

'Cognitive Distraction' Means Hands-Free Cell Phones Aren't Any Safer

June 26, 2013

By Deborah Lockridge

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Fleet managers walked out of Wednesday Fleet Safety Conference keynote speech vowing to change the use of cell phones while driving in both their fleets and their personal lives, following a powerful presentation on distracted driving.

While most people realize the potential dangers of texting while driving and talking on a handheld phone while driving, the idea of "cognitive distraction" is harder for people to grasp, explained David Teater, senior director, transportation initiatives, for the National Safety Council, a non-governmental, nonprofit association.

"We've lost a million people in the last 25 years on our nation's roadways. We lose about 100 a day. What would we do if a plane crashed and killed a hundred people every day?" asked Teater at the event, held this week in Schaumburg, Ill., outside Chicago, put on by Bobit Business Media (publishers of Heavy Duty Trucking and other fleet magazines.)

One of the challenges to preventing crashes, he pointed out, is that we don't always know what causes crashes. There are almost always multiple causes. But we do know that human error causes at least 70% of crashes, and perhaps more than 90%.

Types of Distraction

A big part of human error is distraction, he said, and there are three types:

1. Visual (when we take our eyes off the road)

2. Mechanical (when we take our hands off the wheel)

3. Cognitive (when our mind isn't fully engaged in the task of driving.)

"We all understand visual and mechanical distraction," Teater said. "We have no problem understanding that texting is dangerous," because it involves both visual and mechanical distraction. "It' s harder to understand the danger of a cell phone conversation because it's cognitive distraction."

If we do something we know is distracting, like eating a burger, or rummaging in a purse or backpack in the passenger seat, we either heighten our awareness or limit our duration. That doesn't happen with cognitive distraction. We may spend hours on the phone on a long drive. But can you remember a time when you got finished with a long cell phone conversation in the car and couldn't remember where you were, what town you passed last?

We talk a lot about multitasking, but in reality, Teater explained, the human brain "toggle tasks" – it switches back and forth between tasks. One task is always primary.

"For some reason, when we're talking on a phone, that's the primary task and driving becomes the secondary task," Teater said. That may not matter the 99% of the time when driving is boring and you can largely do it without thinking, like you walk without consciously thinking about it – but what about that 1% of the time when your full attention will mean the difference between life and death?

"How many of you think you can talk on a phone and watch your favorite TV show or read a book at the same time?" Teater asked. "Most of us will say we can't do that. But we think we can talk on the phone and drive?"

Studies have shown that people talking on a cell phone while driving stop doing the scanning of the environment that identifies potential hazards. They develop tunnel vision.

"You can see this if you walk through an airport," he said. "Everyone's trying to talk and walk at the same time, and they don't do it very well. They're walking a little slow, their head's fixed about 10 feet ahead. Drivers do the same thing."

This happens whether you're using a handheld or a hands-free phone.

A 2004 study conducted on simulators found no difference between handheld and hands-free. The cell phone distracted drivers had slower reaction times and were more likely to crash than drivers with a .08 blood alcohol content, the legal drunk driving threshold.

While interstate truck drivers and all hazmat commercial drivers are currently forbidden by law to text or use handheld devices while driving, hands-free devices are legal to use.

The Big Picture

While someone talking on a cell phone is only about four times more likely to have a crash, only slightly more than the risk of reading while driving, in reality, you see a lot more people talking on their phone while driving than reading while driving. Teater said it's important to look not only at the increased risk, but how much you are being exposed to that risk.

"A few naturalistic studies have found people driving down the road changing clothes while driving. It's got to be off the charts risky to do that; why aren't we having an hour-long keynote on that? Because not many people do it."

Teater said studies indicate that about 10% of all drivers at any given moment are distracted on a cell phone. "In 2011, we believe that 1.1 million crashes involved cell phone conversations, or 21%."

"Study after study has not found a benefit to being hands-free. All that changes is we put one hand back on the steering wheel. We drove manual transmissions for years and never worried about having one hand off the steering wheel."

Teater said statistics from accident reports about the number of cell phone-involved crashes are likely far lower than reality.

"We don't know for sure how many people are dying in cell phone crashes. There's no test like BAC for drunk driving. All you can do is have the officer ask the person if they were using a cell phone; they may not tell the truth."

The NSC looked at 188 crashes where the driver had admitted they were on the phone or there were eyewitnesses – only half of them were reported as cell phone crashes. And how many people in single car crashes were actually caused by cell phone distraction? Without witnesses, it's hard to know.

In addition to the question of lives saved, there's the possible savings in avoiding large liability lawsuits. Teater listed several examples, including one settlement for $21 million after a soft drink beverage truck driver who was using a hands-free headset in compliance with the law struck another vehicle and injured the other driver.

What to do

So how do you get people to stop using their phone while driving? It's one of those things that's easier said than done.

"Voluntary compliance is difficult," Teater admitted. "There's something really compelling about our need to be connected. It's really hard to not answer a phone or look at an inbound text message."

In fact, he said, one study found an abnormally large dopamime squirt in the brain of a young person who got an incoming text. "Most researchers won't use the word addiction, but did you ever try to take a phone away from a 15 year old and watch their reaction?"

In business, some people may be worried about a drop in productivity if they can't use their phone in the car. However, he said, surveys of companies who have implemented strict no-cell-phone policies have shown no decrease in productivity for most, and a few actually reported increased productivity.

"You can't just go home and issue a memo saying cell phones are banned," Teater said. "You have to bring employees along so they understand the danger and become advocates."

NSC has a cell phone policy kit, a free download with sample policies, presentations to employees, poster campaigns, etc.

In addition, he said, technology may be a solution. There are systems that jam cell phone signals while in the vehicle, smartphone apps that are integrated with the vehicle so they know when it's in motion, and even smartphone apps that use the phone's GPS to trigger the "driving" status, sending any incoming calls to voice mail.

Teater challenged the audience to try it personally for one month – no cell phone use in the car, even hands-free.

In closing, Teater shared a number of stories of tragic accidents caused by cell phone distraction.

Nine years ago, a mother was taking her son Joe home to an after-school activity about a mile from home. A young woman on a cell phone passed six cars and a school bus that were stopped at a red light. Witnesses in those cars saw the young woman talking on her cell phone and looking straight ahead before she ran the light and broadsided the passenger side of Joe's car without ever hitting the brakes.

The 12-year-old died the next day from his injuries.

"He was my youngest son," Teater said.


For more information, NSC has a couple of free downloads:


The Great Multitasking Lie infographic
Provided by The National Safety Council


  1. 1. BarbRRB [ June 27, 2013 @ 05:21AM ]

    Been saying this for a long time. Make you wanna go......... hummm and shake your head. Truck drivers talking on CB radio for a very long time. No hands free there. We are just good at multi tasking. Some people can do it and some cannot. Some can type a letter on computer and hold a conversation. Some can handle being an ER doctor and some cannot. Just like the HOS...... One size DOES NOT FIT ALL.

  2. 2. POW [ June 27, 2013 @ 08:46AM ]

    it seems as though the trucking industry, particularly the truck drivers, always seem to get part of, if not all, the blame whenever there is a crash involving a big rig and a motorist. "experts" can make the statistics whatever they want, and make it so you believe it. i really do not think they tell you that the motorist was the cause of the crash and not the truck driver. it seems to be the american way to purposely blame the truck driver so the general public will side for the legeslative and get laws passed that they do not have to worry about obeying, since they only are laws to govern truck drivers. my belief, motorists are the cause of most of the accidents involved with big trucks, period. they don't have the same laws to abide with. every person needs to have the experience of riding in a semi truck/trailer if you are intending to express an opinion, to really see how difficult it is to deal with the smaller motorists on the road..

  3. 3. Harold Jones [ June 28, 2013 @ 05:20AM ]

    The "experts" should try sitting behind the wheel of thier vehicle an average of 9+ hours per day 5 or 6 days per week. It is impossible to not be cognitivley distracted just by your own thoughts, (daydreams). I drove about a million miles and have about 22 years in fleet management. Well trained, safety consicious drivers need to be able to break the monotony by occasional use of the CB or handsfree phone.

    The referrence to airline safety is ridiculous. Does anyone really beleive that the pilots are 100% focused during the whole flight? Ever heard of "autopilot"? They are 100% focused at takeoff, landing and any other time they need to be. This over regulation of trucking needs to be reigned in!

  4. 4. Tim Stears [ July 06, 2013 @ 07:42AM ]

    R E S P E C T ! This 7 letter word could solve many problems with today's society. With over 30 years behind the wheel, I can't recall the number of times the simple mentality of respect could have saved a life. Most times, a total lack of, causes a driver to do a stupid act, cause a wreck, and blame it on the other guy, and truck involved? theres an easy target! Heck everybody knows them truck drivers are big bullys and have a lot of money and big insurance... And there seems to be no limit once given the microphone, how far they will go to change everybody else, to make their actions seem right. An example, most states now require traffic to move over or slow down for an emergency vehicle on the shoulder, today it's the law! 30 years ago it was respect. Ok, now count the number of times today you put the directional on to possibly save a life, and some twit to your left takes it as a personal challenge, you have to lean on him to do the right thing, the twit gets by and throws you the finger, some take it to the next level and report the bullying truck driver to anybody who will listen.
    Several times a day I am on the phone( hands free of course) and chose to cut the conversation short, call me later, coming into traffic, my ramp coming up, some twit messing up my good day.... Go back to respect being the norm, throw in a little common sense and use this as the voice that governs the land, and it will all make sense once again.

  5. 5. Patric Morrison [ July 20, 2013 @ 06:44AM ]

    Patric Morrison


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