Editor’s note: Michael Maddox, PhD, CHFP, is a senior scientist for HumanCentric Technologies. The Human Factor is a regular feature in LTW.
_______________________________________________________________________________________Did you ever hear someone say, in response to hearing some especially obvious research result, “Well, no kidding – that’s just common sense?” Perhaps you’ve said something similar.

We who labor in the human factors profession despair of these sorts of comments, even though we’ve made them ourselves at times. We don’t particularly like such comments because many behavioral research results do not jibe with what most people would consider common sense. Even for those that do, it seems that common sense is a very rare commodity out there in the world.

So, here I am writing a column about research results that really do support a common sense notion. Why? Because, even though pretty much all the research on this topic supports the same conclusions, most people’s behavior has not changed to conform to the common sense result. In fact, these results seem to be pretty much ignored. What am I talking about? Well, naturally I’m referring to the ubiquitous cell phone.

I’ll bet just about everyone reading this column has used a cell phone while driving a vehicle. I’d wager further that we’ve all followed someone who is driving erratically, crossing the center line, drifting from one side of the lane to the other, speeding up and slowing down for no particular reason, etc. When we finally pass that individual, we see they’re talking on their cell phone. So, if I took an informal poll regarding what effect we think talking on a cell phone has on our driving performance, I’m guessing most of us would say that talking on a cell phone is detrimental to driving performance.

Statistics Show the Risk of Driving, Talking

Well, here’s not very much of a surprise. Nearly every recent study of driving performance during cell phone usage has shown similar results. Talking on a cell phone while driving results in markedly reduced indicators of attentiveness, steering control, braking, detection of hazards, situation awareness, etc. These results pertain for all drivers in all age groups (though there is some variation with age) and for both hands-on and hands-free cell phones.

According to an estimate from the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, talking or listening on cell phones causes 2,600 deaths and over 300,000 injuries in the U.S. each year.

Given all this research support for a common notion, i.e., that using a cell phone while driving is a very bad idea, we should expect to see the use of cell phones in moving vehicles decline, right? Well, not exactly.

A recent survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), reported by the Associated Press, indicated that 8 percent of drivers (that’s 1.2 million people) used cell phones during daylight hours in 2004. This is a 50 percent increase since 2002 and a 100 percent increase over four years. As my hero, Homer Simpson, might say “Doh!”

Some states, such as New York and New Jersey, prohibit talking on hand-held cell phones while driving. Some communities have adopted the same prohibition. The AP article noted that NHTSA wants all 50 states to ban the use of cell phones and other wireless devices by people with learner’s permits. So far, only New Jersey and Maine have such bans.

Based on the available evidence (and there’s a bunch of it), talking on any kind of cell phone while driving can be very dangerous. It doesn’t matter whether the phone is handheld or hands-free – the result is the same. In other words, it’s not a matter of being able to control the vehicle with one hand. It’s more an issue of being able to use one brain to do two continuous tasks at once–and we’re just not very good at doing that.

Cell Phone Even in the Dash

I recently bought a new car. Well, it’s not so recent anymore, but still I was surprised that it had telephone controls integrated with the other dashboard controls. You can buy an optional package that allows a certain model cell phone to be connected to the car. The cell phone address book will be sucked into the car’s computer system and the car radio (with associated microphone) then becomes a voice-command, hands-free phone.

I pointed out to the dealer that talking on a cell phone, even an integrated cell phone, just isn’t a good idea. As you can guess, this had the effect of causing the salesperson to look at me as though I’d lost my mind. This sort of automobile design institutionalizes and legitimizes cell phone use in vehicles. Exactly the opposite message we should be sending to drivers.

In addition to the driving hazards posed by cell phone usage, there’s also the sheer annoyance factor associated with people using cell phones in restaurants, movies, on airplanes, and just about everywhere else people congregate. Want to hear some really funny research results? The AP also reported this. A recent survey by the University of Michigan found that 6 in 10 cell phone users say that using a cell phone in public can be “a major irritation.” Four in 10 said there should be a law prohibiting people from talking on their cell phones in public places. Eight in 10 said cell phones are a major safety hazard if used while driving.

Go figure.

Michael Maddox is a senior scientist for HumanCentric Technologies (www.humancentrictech.com). He can be reached at 919-481-0565 or mmaddox@humancentrictech.com.