Fleet managers walked out of 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 Driver 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 About Cognitive Distraction

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 that 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.

About the author
Deborah Lockridge

Deborah Lockridge

Editor and Associate Publisher

Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology.

View Bio