The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

December 10, 2013

Distracted much?

The Register-Herald

— The revolutionary impact of technology on our lives in the past two decades has without question changed them for the better.

From improved food safety to miraculous medical treatments to the recent unprecedented advances in communications.

But with all such dramatic leaps forward, there often arise new issues directly related to the disruptive new technology.

The use of cell phones and driving are an example.

In the five months since West Virginia implemented the distracted driving law, 286 drivers have been ticketed and another 108 were issued warnings.

Based on our driving experience, we’re somewhat surprised those numbers is so low.

“The whole thing with the law is to make sure people have their hands on the wheel and that they aren’t more concentrated on the phone than what’s in front of them,” said Beckley Police Capt. Lonnie Christian. “If your phone is not in your hand, it’s not a violation.”

The captain is correct. The dangers of distracted driving have been well-documented, with some studies even reporting that driving while using a mobile phone could be as dangerous, or more so, than drunk driving.

Whether that is or is not the case, we know that curtailing both of these behaviors is in the interest of public safety.

All in all, it’s a good start.

But we also are of the opinion that the distracted driver law may not prove to be as effective as it might seem. Hands-free is definitely an improvement, but it may not be enough.

As vehicles become more interactive, hands-free driving is less of an issue. But new research is questioning whether even hands-free driving is putting safety first.

David Strayer is a brain researcher at the University of Utah. His studies indicate that even hands-free driving can be distracted driving — and can be just as dangerous.

Like many researchers who study the human brain, he finds that we aren’t as good at multi-tasking as we think. Driving, specifically, is a very complex task for us humans. What these scientists have found is that the skills needed to drive use a different part of the brain than the skills needed to talk.

And that’s the problem.

Smartphones or in-car speech-to-text systems can “lead to significant levels of distraction,” Strayer, a cognitive distraction expert, recently told NBC News.

Driving and checking e-mail or Facebook, he told NBC, while using a voice-activated system, require more concentration, meaning a lesser focus on the road, even with both hands on the wheel.

“There may be some things, no matter how good you make it, that just don’t belong in a car,” Strayer said.

Over 70 percent of Americans think hands-free devices in vehicles are safer. That doesn’t seem to be the case, Strayer found in another study:

“We also compared hand-held and hands-free cell phones and found that the impairments to driving are identical for these two modes of communication. There was no evidence that hands-free cell phones were any safer to use while driving than hand-held devices.”

Which is why we believe West Virginia’s hands-free law may be just the first step in a longer battle to get not just our eyes, but our minds, back on the road.