Retraction: Is Cell-Phone Encumbered Driving More Dangerous?

This weekend while making crab cakes I tuned into Freakonomics. The topic–automobiles and safety–was timely for me as by chance I had just finished reading Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt, about the psychology of driving.

(Traffic is an interesting book. Part of his thesis is that when drivers are called upon to think, they become better, safer drivers. Conversely, as we put up more signs, create more rules, install more safety devices, and so forth, we tend to be less engaged, more reckless. Interesting to think about whether there are parallels here to classroom learning.)

Since Traffic came out a couple of years ago, I was interested to hear on the podcast whether any significant new findings have come to light. And, indeed, I heard something that really surprised me.

The best evidence available today, Freakonomics’s Dubner and Levitt asserted, indicates that talking on a cell phone does not increase the chances of being involved in an accident. I’ve written about this issue in reference to the challenges of managing cognitive load, and I had asserted the opposite. According to Dubner and Levitt, however, research now suggests that perhaps drivers understand that they are doing something distracting and compensate by increasing their focus on the roads. Cell phone use also may ward off fatigue.

This reminds me of the research around doodling and how it increases our engagement in boring meetings. Could it be that cell phone use while driving makes us more careful and aware to compensate for the distraction?

Indeed, if you dive into the research article Dubner and Levitt reference, it feels like the researchers build a pretty good empirical case that just talking on a cell phone has no significant impact on accident likelihood. Traffic asserts that people physically scan the road differently, and less defensively, while talking on cell phones, but there is no mention of this in the article above, and even if true does not appear to have a significant practical impact.

(That said, searching for the phone, dialing, hanging up, and other activities that take your eyes off the road do increase your odds of being in an accident. But that’s not a cognitive load issue, it’s a physical attention issue.)

It looks like the best evidence available indicates I was wrong in my assertion about the impact of cell phone-based cognitive load on high automaticity activities like driving. That means either that cell phone use isn’t high enough load to make a difference, or it means that we are capable of altering our driving to compensate. Or maybe it means that both driving and cell phoning are so highly automated, at least in the population in the article (frequent cell phone users) that one doesn’t impact the other. Interesting stuff.


One thought on “Retraction: Is Cell-Phone Encumbered Driving More Dangerous?

  1. Ellen

    I am definitely not in the target population. I’ve probably used my cell phone twice in the last six months, to call for a ride home from the airport…and I forget what the other was. Maybe to call and see how many minutes I have left. I can barely WALK and use the phone; I can’t imagine driving and phoning, as using the phone is anything but automatic.


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