The Province of Ontario is considering an outright ban on the use of handheld cell phones while driving, which requires some investigation, as it is contentious.
We will use cell phones as a catch-all for a Blackberry, iPods, DVD players, GPS navigation systems, beepers, text messaging and the rest of the communications technology that winds up in your car.
There are two schools of thought. The first is people have been observed driving while putting on makeup, eating a burrito, drinking coffee, bopping to the radio and a hundred of other distractions, with little or no deleterious effect on their driving ability.
The second school of thought is that a distracted driver is a dangerous driver, end of the sentence, full stop.
When it comes to the operation of a motor vehicle, here are a couple of constants: 30 miles per hour = 44 feet per second. Reaction time for most humans paying attention, is a half-second, another second to begin deceleration and another second to actually come to a stop. Add it up and a stop from 30 mph is 110 feet from the moment of ‘oh, there is a giraffe in the street’ to stopped. That’s for someone paying attention.
Where the distance stretches out is a driver not paying attention. The half-second reaction time becomes longer, sometime as long as two or three seconds to recognize a situation that requires driver action, then add on the two seconds to come to a stop from 30 mph. We’re at 176 feet, just under 60 yards, more than half a football field.
To figure this out at highway speeds, essentially double the distances, as 60 mph is 88 feet per second.
For the nitpickers, yes, with an ABS equipped car, on dry pavement, with a skilled, focused driver knowing they are being tested, you can get better numbers. I’ve done it in a stock car, competition karts and a Formula Ford. I’ve done full-panic stops in a ‘78 Pontiac, an ‘87 5.0 Mustang and an ‘06 Sentra, all non-ABS equipped vehicles. Done right in a good hard stop, your eyes feel like they’re coming out of your head and you are suspended in the seat belts, your body off the seat back.
Considering that most drivers don’t have the belts cinched down tight, have a cell phone glued to their head and are not paying full attention, the final distance for a panic stop from 30 mph could be anywhere from 176 feet to a couple of international time zones until they clue in. Too many rear-end accidents start with “I didn’t see you stop as I was on my (insert gizmo name here)…” There are too many anecdotal incidents, that most of us have experienced, of being cut off, or nearly driven over top of by other drivers on their cell phones.
Which explains why the province is going to ban the devices in hand-held mode, ticketing drivers for using them while driving. Fair enough. It’s the backlash that I’m concerned about. Listening to call-in shows, where half the callers seem to be calling while driving, the universal excuse is that “I’m a better driver and I need the phone for my business.”
I call ‘bull-shee-it’ on the first one, as the median driver in Ontario is a clueless hump. Quebec is different: They are out to kill you. A red light is considered a suggestion in that province, not an absolute.
Ask any professional driver of trucks, school busses or motor coaches. They’ll tell you they spend more brain cycles worrying where that wandering van with Mom and the soccer kids is going to wind up, trying to stay the hell away from them.
As for the ‘need it for my business’ argument, I don’t buy it. I have had a cell phone for years and my voice mail has said “I might be teaching, or driving right now but I will get back to you shortly.” Sorry, I’m not going to answer your call while driving. Get over it and if you don’t appreciate that I choose not to die while driving, then I don’t care what you’re offering me.
What we’re missing in all this discussion is the science. Motor vehicle drivers have not been studied that well, but there is a profession where human interaction with transportation technology has been documented. Commercial airline pilots.
The way that pilots interact with repetitive tasking in a high stress environment is very well and very extensively studied. Flying a commercial aircraft is a few seconds of excitement (landing or take off regimes) interspersed with hours of mind numbing tedium, as the flight management computer (FMC) flies the plane.
In studying pilots (and accidents) it has been proven over and over again that a ‘sterile’ cockpit is the safest cockpit during landing and take off. No discussion of the kids, the Phillies, or anything not directly associated with the task at hand, making the airplane fly, or land. The pilot must be fully focused on the command of the aircraft, end of sentence.
However, pilots, like other humans, do stray from a sterile cockpit, but the pros only do it when at cruise altitude, or when the ‘work’ is over for a few minutes and the FMC is flying the plane. Yes, there are significant distractions in a commercial cockpit, but all of the distractions are focused on navigation, crew alerting or operations, not tunes, MySpace email, or text messages from the kids.
In emergency situations, which commercial pilots train for all the time, the science of Cockpit Resource Management (CRM) has also studied how flight crew interact. One airline, Northwest, used to have a simple emergency procedure on the cover of their manuals: The pilot-in-command will fly the plane. The pilot-not-flying will work through the steps to diagnose and rectify the emergency.
Note that first step again: Fly the Plane. Wings level, sufficient airspeed, no climb or descent, look out the windows. Fly the Plane.
Which is what should be imprinted on the steering wheel of every motor vehicle: Drive the Car First.