Silly ideas about safe texting

This is so wrong that if it were April 1, I would assume it is a joke.

Keyboard on windshield

heads-up keyboard from Wired article

But it comes from a writer with Gizmodo, one of the best tech sites around, and it was published by Wired. Unless proven otherwise, I have to assume it’s just a silly human falling prey to the illusion of attention.

The author asks, “Why isn’t there a better way to text while driving?” He acknowledges (correctly) that texting while driving is dangerous and shouldn’t be done, but he simultaneously admits doing it all the time. That’s disturbing since he is admitting to knowingly putting everyone around him in danger for no good reason. The broader focus of the piece, though, is based on a much bigger misunderstanding. He seems to think that the problem could be solved with technological innovation, making it possible for people to text without looking away from the road. His personal solution:

My own strategy is to hold the phone at the top of the steering wheel while typing in the hope that my brain will still be able to recognize dangers in front of me, even if my vision is focused on a little screen on a much closer plane.

Boo. Hiss. Snarl.

In a moment of unusual clarity, he states:

It’s probably not a very sound theory and I’ve been fortunate to never have really had the opportunity to put it to the test.

Yup. It’s not sound at all. Why not check into that before posting it as a possible fix? Perhaps he was too distracted?

The problem isn’t just with where you are focusing your eyes—just because your eyes are directed at the road doesn’t guarantee that you will consciously see everything important (including me prancing in front of your car). In fact, a head-up display can make people less likely to notice unexpected events right in their field of view (see studies of pilots by Haines). If you falsely believe that you are watching the road while focusing attention on your phone or a keyboard, you might be in even greater danger.

Texting requires you to take your mind off the road, and it’s even more cognitively demanding than talking on a phone. Talking on a phone while driving is roughly equivalent to driving under the influence of alcohol. Texting is much worse. There’s a reason that hands-free phones aren’t any safer than hand-held ones. The problem isn’t with your hands — it’s with your head. Your silly, human head. When you occupy your mind with something like texting, you are not devoting your mind to the road. That means you will miss unexpected events that happen right in front of your eyes. You’ll never catch a gorilla texting while driving.

10 comments to Silly ideas about safe texting

  • The bans on texting while driving are well intentioned however they may promote a more dangerous behavior. Typically when we see someone texting and driving they are holding their phone near the top of their steering wheel. After the ban goes into effect, imagine the same offenders driving down the highway holding their phone down by their waist to obscure their activity from law enforcement. They are taking their eyes completely off the road for 4 to 6 seconds and longer at a time. Not even a chance for peripheral vision to detect a problem ahead. It’s going to take a combination of laws, education strategies and technologies to address the problem. The SafeTexting Campaign app uses GPS technology to address the problem.

  • Have to disagree with you there. People made the same arguments about mandatory seat belt laws, infant car seats, drinking while driving, etc. Yes, it’s hard to get people to change their behavior, but it is possible through massive education and, if necessary, regulation. The history of mandatory seat belt laws make clear that such policies can work. Again, whether or not to regulate is a political decision. Whether or not there is a danger is a scientific one. The evidence shows that talking on the phone while driving is roughly comparable to driving under the influence of alcohol and that texting is much worse.

  • The Realist

    You’re all right but you’re all wrong.
    There are certain things you will never convince some people to do/not to do.
    Examples: eating veggies, exercising more often, sex/abstinence, texting!

    Like it or not people will text while driving but someone who really understands this must address the need not the ideal. We must be able to separate those in practice.

  • @Ray Thompson
    You’re right that the data on actual accidents caused by cell phone distraction is based on police and insurance reports and those might well underreport the rates. Many states only recently started collecting information on cell phone use following an accident, and some still don’t do it consistently. Moreover, people who were on a phone during an accident might well try to hide that fact. At least one epidemiological-style study did look at phone records in an attempt to link them to actual accidents and found a 3x greater risk of an accident if people were on the phone (the study was by Redelmeier and was done some years ago).

    Although you’re right that the statistics on actual accidents are harder to come by, the evidence that cell phones are distracting comes from more systematic studies of driving in labs (and on the road) in which the use of a cell phone is systematically varied. The evidence that cell phones are a significant distraction is overwhelming now. In contrast, the studies show that talking to a person in the car is not nearly as distracting. Children in the back seat can be distracting, but unlike cell phones, it is often necessary to have kids in the car. It’s never necessary to have a phone conversation in a car (after all, we didn’t have portable phones in the past and we all got by). Whether or not phone use should be regulated is a political decision. Whether or not they are unnecessarily distracting is clear from the evidence. They are.

  • The research on cell phone use while driving and accidents is done by compiling data from police reports which merely report if the person says they were using their phone. It may not have had anything to do with the cause of the accident. If we are to banned all use including hands free then we need to ban talking to others in the car, especially children in the back seat. Actually the Highway Safety Commission list of activities by the driver at the time of the accident are very interesting and cell phones are way down the list. No, you should not text and drive. That should include not reading books…something I have seen many 18-wheeler drivers doing.

  • That might be a little better than texting, but it won’t solve the problem. Talking on a phone is distracting too, and hands-free phones aren’t any safer than hand-held ones…

  • Sounds like they could use voice recognition software…

  • I couldnt agree with you more. Even reading a text is diverting your attention and impairing your cognitive ability to focus on the road.

  • Thanks for doing what you are doing to penetrate the illusion of attention. It’s going to take a concerted effort to change people’s perceptions. As you note, most people do it just fine – and get away with it (until they don’t). The invisible gorilla experiment was an eye opener and a game changer for me. Keep up the great work.

  • Crazy. This is just one of those conventions – like the one that said smoking was ‘cool’ and the one that said ‘one for the road’ was just fine– that we need to actively work on changing. No talking on cell phones– even hands free– and NO-WAY you EVER text and drive!

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