Texting while driving -- really, folks?!

In just the past week, this humble primate has received multiple emails, twitter messages (and followers), and blog comments promoting wonderful new products that claim to permit safe texting while driving. I think most are in response to my post entitled “silly ideas about safe texting.” I’m guessing most of these are just spammers who see something about “safe texting” and think I’m sympathetic to their promotions. Silly hairless apes.

Here are a couple examples:

Driveradvocate.com (posted the following comment to my previous post that I subsequently blocked as spam):

With 39 States having “No Phone or Texting While Driving” Laws in effect by October 1, 2010 you can save yourself the embarrassment and humiliation by getting a new HandsFree way to make phone calls and texting while driving assistance from “Kylee” your new Virtual Assistant provided here.

Oooh… wouldn’t want to be humiliated, would we.

My tweets (@invisgorilla) are now being followed by VoiceAssist, whose website has a big banner stating:

“Keep your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. Text, call and email all by voice command.”

To their credit, many of their tweets are about the dangers of distracted driving. But, the danger from talking on a phone has nothing to do with keeping your hands on the wheel, and people can miss critical events on the road even when looking right at them. The problem is with your head, not your eyes.

The idea behind all products like these is fundamentally flawed — the premise is that texting while driving can somehow be made safe by using voice recognition. But, just as hands-free phones aren’t really safer than hand-held phones, voice recognition won’t solve the problem for texters. (It might help a tiny bit for bad texters, but texting will still be even more dangerous than driving while talking on a phone.) The problem is that generating a text message is hard — it requires your attention and your focus. If you have ever used dictation software, you know how challenging it can be to generate a concise, clear message verbally. That’s much harder than holding a natural conversation in which your meaning can be clarified and your grammar isn’t as critical. And, holding a hands-free conversation is comparable to driving under the influence of alcohol. Texting is many times worse than that! If you’re focusing on generating a message, you’re not focusing on the road. That’s where the danger comes from, even more than from typing.

These sorts of claims have dangerous implications. If people believe the hype and think that they can safely text and talk on phones by using voice recognition, they will be even more overconfident in their ability to do so. And, we know that people don’t tend to realize how distracted they are. Anything that makes people more likely to use their phones while driving is a bad thing. Need some evidence? Check out this white paper by the NSC.

I throw 5 really rotten, stinky bananas at companies hawking products that encourage people to text and drive.

4 comments to Texting while driving — really, folks?!

  • Doreen

    Isn’t there an additional secondary argument here related to personal responsibility and boundaries. If there is any suggestion that my texting or using voice recognition software will cause another person harm, shouldn’t this be a huge factor in the decision making? Harm myself – my decision to make (unless you are paying for my medical treatment). Harm you – should not be my decision. Takes me back to when I had teens. Untidy room – your gifted personal space – do what you want. Untidy room and smells out in the hallway – now it’s in my personal space so clean it or I will. Thanks for your explanations as I was one who thought hands free OK. Not anymore.

  • Interesting blog post, Maura. I find the two camps in this discussion really frustrating. One camp thinks that the internet and social media are radically changing our brains, typically overhyping the idea of neuroplasticity. The other puts its head in the sand and says that technology only makes us smarter and doesn’t cause problems. The evidence that people are lousy at multitasking is overwhelming. We can’t do two things at once as well as we do one thing at a time. But that doesn’t mean that technology is inherently bad — in many ways it makes us smarter. The issue is how (and when) we use technology. We typically don’t realize how distracted we are when multitasking (and we often don’t even realize we are multitasking). And the ease with which we access information can lead to a mistaken belief that we understand more than we do. Chris Chabris and I wrote a piece taking this perspective in the LA Times a couple months ago.

  • There seems to be a small (but growing?) backlash to the idea that increasingly-present technology can have some dangerous (or at least detrimental) implications. Wired Magazine has had several articles suggesting such in the headline, but they are not well-supported. I found their articles so preposterous that I wrote a post to answer them. Apparently any suggestion that today’s technology environment is anything but utopia is not a welcome idea in some forums.

  • Business people need to ‘hit the ball over the net’. Teens consider it rude not to reply immediately to texts. Home schedules would grind to a halt without immediate communication. We are conditioned to pursue this level of efficiency but we are all supposed cease this behavior once we sit in our respective 5,000 pound pieces of steel and glass. Anyone can win an argument in a forum like this by saying “Just put the phone away” – but we can see its just not happening.

    I also agree with this author about any Speech to Text software – it seems just as dangerous as regular texting while driving and maybe that is why no safety experts have endorsed this flawed approach.

    I decided to do something about the text and drive epidemic after my three year old daughter was nearly run down right in front of me by a texting driver . Instead of a shackle that locks down phones and alienates the user (especially teens) I built a tool called OTTER that is a simple app for smartphones that eliminates the temptation to text while drive.

    Erik Wood, owner
    OTTER app
    - http://www.prlog.org/10871927.html

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