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Smartphone Use in Cars Reducing Accidents and Maybe Saving Lives

by Roger Lanctot | May 04, 2014

This is like one of those chocolate/wine/marijuana (pick one) is good for you stories. It contradicts everything your mother ever told you - but that your dad told you was true.

A senior executive for a usage-based insurance company approached me recently with a quandary. He said his customer data showed that driving behavior improves with mobile phone use. This executive wanted to know if I had seen anything similar elsewhere and he was very hesitant about sharing what he regarded as highly controversial information.

The executive talked about this information as if he were Edward Snowden in possession of NSA secrets and in need of diplomatic immunity and a safe haven. This is no surprise, as the hysteria surrounding distracted driving has led to an almost universal condemnation of the use of mobile phones in cars, even in a hands-free fashion.

The irony to this executive’s finding is the fact that properly conducted research into the use of mobile phones during driving has shown driving behavior impacts to be virtually indistinguishable from driving without a mobile phone. In the words of a well-known study co-authored by my colleague, Chris Schreiner, during his time working in human factors at OnStar:

“We conclude that for personal conversations using a hands-free embedded device, the risk of an airbag crash is somewhere in a range from a moderately lower risk to a risk near that of driving without a recent personal conversation.”

  • Real-World Personal Conversations Using a Hands-Free Embedded Wireless Device While Driving: Effect on Airbag-Deployment Crash Rates – Young & Schreiner (2009)

OnStar’s use of personal minutes – wireless hands-free phone calls made via the embedded OnStar module – was the earliest form of hands-free calling. The results of this study – derived from an analysis of 91M hands-free calls from an average of more than 300K drivers per month over a 30 month period and representing 276M driver-minutes – have been borne out by studies such as the Virginia Tech Transport Institute naturalistic driving study and others.

Dozens of contradictory studies, using non-naturalistic methodologies, have fueled the anti-smartphone, driver distraction debate – as have statistics attributing thousands of highway fatalities to the use of smartphones. At issue is the claim that hands-free calling is as distracting as handheld calling. At stake is allowing consumers to use their mobile phones in moving vehicles.

Opponents of any mobile phone use in cars, a large and strident constituency with the ear of regulators, want to see hands-free phone use conflated with handheld use because handheld use has a significantly higher distraction factor. These groups rely on the findings of studies that almost universally focus on workload management analysis requiring un-natural tasks being performed during driving on the road or in a simulator.

These groups also trumpet claims of fatalities attributable to mobile phone use in the range of 1,000-3,000 in the U.S. and many thousands more around the world. Of course, it is difficult to know what kind of mobile phone use is implicated in each of these fatalities, but the numbers alone are enough to impel a call for a smartphone ban in cars.

The U.S. is pushing for individual states to enact laws requiring hands-free technology when making phone calls from mobile phones in cars. This is in line with regulatory activities in Europe and Asia, though enforcement varies widely.

It does make sense to ban the touching of mobile phones while driving – as most European countries have done – but there are those that will not stop until all mobile phone use in the car is restricted, banned or jammed. This would be a mistake, as multiple studies have shown.

The latest steps in the U.S. include the second round of VTTI’s study and mobile device UI guidelines from the US DOT. We won’t have the results of the second VTTI naturalistic study probably until the beginning of 2015. And the US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration guidelines for the use of mobile devices in cars is not expected until the end of 2014.

Researchers do agree that texting and driving is distracting and ought to be banned. But hands-free calling may actually have a prophylactic effect. That is the controversial indication in the data – drivers have fewer accidents when talking on their mobile phones.

This is not to say that mobile phone use while driving is something to be encouraged. It is suggesting, though, that drivers are either deciding on their own to make calls primarily when it is safer to do so, or they are compensating with a higher state of vigilance when talking on the phone.

It is worth noting, in the words of one researcher, “When the driving demands are low, it is actually very difficult to devote all of our attention to the driving task.” In other words, a hands-free phone conversation could be acting as a stimulus to an otherwise inattentive driver helping to keep him or her awake and engaged in the otherwise boring driving task.

What precisely is causing drivers using mobile phones to demonstrate improved driving behavior relative to those not using their mobile phones remains unclear. One thing that is clear is that it is a controversial subject likely to continue to fuel debate and study. The important thing is that we continue to regard this as a debate and not a forgone conclusion as some in the driver distraction community would have it.

Maybe it is time to look at how many lives have been saved by smartphones in cars or how many might be saved with smartphones properly configured to alert the driver to contextual cues. Thankfully companies like TeleNav, HERE, INRIX, TomTom, Garmin, and Global Mobile Alert are all working on delivering those smartphone applications.

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