Cognitive Overload as a Motorsport

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There's good news if you're one of those people infuriated by the sight of some idiot behind the steering wheel with a cell phone pressed to his head talking and not paying attention while driving-- that idiot's days are numbered. Come Summer 2008, that idiot will be replace by the new and improved idiot behind the steering wheel with a cell phone headset welded to his head talking and not paying attention while driving.

Governor Schwarzenegger is scheduled to sign SB1613 into law today. The law will ban blathering away on a handheld cell phone after July 1, 2008, but if you have a hands-free set up (e.g., a headset) you'll still be free to blather. Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C. already have similar laws. But what these other states don't have is a governor who can squeeze money for his reelection campaign out of the cell phone companies the same week he signs such a law.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports, "Schwarzenegger had a fundraiser with the cell phone industry earlier this week." That entertaining fact is more than just a tribute to the governor's unrivaled cash extraction abilities-- abilities that must have former champion fundraisers like Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, as well as a goodly portion of the world's pickpockets and conmen, shaking their heads in stunned admiration-- it's also a sign of how non-threatening this bill is to the cell phone industry. In fact, whereas most business groups howl and whine whenever a new regulation touching them is enacted, this time only one company, Sprint-Nextel, protested the bill. And why should the others protest? After all, this bill will help them sell new accessories while distracting attention away from the real public safety problem involved in using cell phones while driving, which is… using cell phones while driving.

According to the Chronicle, the bill's author, Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), maintains that "data from the California Highway Patrol showed that not only were cell phones the No. 1 cause of distracted driving accidents, but that hands-free technology substantially reduced the number of crashes". Without wishing to cast any doubts on the number crunching skills of the Highway Patrol, I note that the only peer-reviewed study of the effect of hands-free cell phone technology on driving safety to examine actual accident data and cell phone records, instead of the actions of volunteers who knew they were being monitored, comes to a very different conclusion.

In 2003 and 2004, the Virginia-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research center, studied traffic accidents in Perth, Australia, where hands-free technology was already legally mandated. After reviewing 744 cases, the Institute concluded, "There is no safety advantage associated with switching to the types of hands-free devices that are commonly in use." Summarizing the findings of the study for The New York Times when it appeared in the British Medical Journal in 2005, Rae Tyson of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said,

"There just doesn't seem to be any safety benefit by restricting drivers to hands-free phones… It's the cognitive overload that sometimes occurs when you're engaging in a conversation that is the source of the distraction more so than the manipulation of the device."

With wry understatement, the study, which appeared after those other states passed their laws, does advance one possible solution to the safety problem posed by using cell phones while driving:
"While a possible solution in the future is to change mobile phones so they cannot be used when vehicles are in motion, the likelihood the industry would embrace such a change seems remote."

No cell phone use while driving? Not only is it a "remote" possibility that the industry "would embrace such a change", but one can easily imagine the industry standing by almost silently while a law that introduces new regulations but keeps people chatting on cell phones in cars is passed, and even stuffing money into the pockets of a governor who would sign such a law.

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