There have been several published studies (and even more newspaper articles) that show cell-phone use while driving is correlated with accidents. The suggestion from these studies is that cell phones CAUSE accidents. The implication is that we should ban cell phones while driving.

This may be true. I was scared to death last week while my taxi driver was looking at his cell phone to dial numbers. He clearly did not have his eyes on the road. If anything unusual occurred (like the van in the next lane entering our lane right in front of us—watch out please watch out!), his reaction time would have been considerably slowed and we would have been much more likely to have an accident.

On the other hand, I wonder how much of the current problems are caused by a learning deficit. After all, for most of us cell phones are rather new. More importantly, driving while using a cell phone is also new. This kind of multitasking can be learned. There are research studies that show that experience doing multitasking can increase performance on the tasks being done. With enough practice, less working-memory capacity is needed, freeing up capacity to engage in the various tasks.

One hypothesis suggested by this is that cell-phone-related accidents will decrease with time as drivers get more practice using their cell phones while driving. Judging from the number of people I see driving and phoning, not many people are heeding the warnings, so lots of people are gaining more experience. Cell-phone accident rates will also decline as new technologies are utilized, namely voice-dialing and hands-free cell-phones.

On the other hand, a second hypothesis is that anything that prompts drivers to take their eyes off the road will produce similar deficits to cell-phone driving. Here’s a short list:

  1. People who read maps while driving.
  2. People who look at the radio to tune to a particular station.
  3. People who glance at the person sitting next to them while in conversation.
  4. People who look at their food before stuffing it in their mouths.
  5. People who admire the scenery.
  6. People who rubberneck at accident scenes.

People who look at their cell phones to dial a number are just asking for trouble. It probably helps to have two hands on the wheel, as well.

I’d be willing to bet that for most people fewer accidents will occur when using a hands-free, voice-dialing cell phone than when talking with someone sitting beside them in the front seat, assuming equal levels of experience doing both. The natural human tendency to want to look someone in the eyes while talking to them will prompt most of us to try and steal a glance at our conversational partners, increasing slightly the danger from unforeseen events.

Like most things in life, learning plays a central role in our cell-phone-while-driving performance. Like most things for us humans, our cognitive machinery sets the boundaries for this performance.

New Information from the Research (An Update on My Thinking)

Although I still wonder about our ability to learn how to utilize cell phones while driving, recent research suggests that right now, we are not too good at it. Check out my updated post on this.