Deadly distraction

Mobile phones and their misuse have been discussed here before. But since they and more to the point the problems they can engender for professional drivers are not going away anytime soon, we are compelled to keep talking about them. Besides getting my Irish up every time I hit the road and have to face off with idiot four-wheelers yammering about God knows what on their handheld or hands-free cellphones

Mobile phones and their misuse have been discussed here before. But since they and — more to the point — the problems they can engender for professional drivers are not going away anytime soon, we are compelled to keep talking about them.

Besides getting my Irish up every time I hit the road and have to face off with idiot four-wheelers yammering about God knows what on their handheld or hands-free cellphones while they are supposed to be engaged in the very demanding mental and physical task of piloting a motor vehicle on public roads (!), a new study has driven home yet again what a menace those handy little devices can be in the wrong hands.

The study comes to us from across the pond but its results are equally valid no matter what side of the road you (legally) drive on. According to BBC World News, tests by scientists at Great Britain's Transport Research Laboratory showed that “drivers on mobiles” had slower reaction and stopping times than those under the influence of alcohol.

Trust me, I am the last person to endorse drinking and driving. But it is a sobering thought to think that yakking on the phone has now been shown to have a bigger negative impact on driver reaction times than being juiced beyond a legal limit.

What's more — and here's my favorite part — the testing indicated “hands-free kits were almost as dangerous as hand-held phones.” That nicely backs up my own long-held argument that it isn't simply the looking down at the dial (sorry, keypad!) or punching up of numbers that causes accidents.

Nope, that's not the real problem. What I feel strongly is that the average non-professional driver simply can't drive a car or SUV and talk on a phone safely at the same time. Remember, when these folks are on the phone, there's often no one in the passenger seat admonishing them to keep their “eyes on the road, eyes on the road.”

Or as Roger Vincent of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents so rightly told BBC, “The problem is you actually get sucked into the telephone conversation and the conversation starts to take precedence over the driving task. The person on the end of the phone doesn't know the driving conditions around you. If someone's in the car talking to you they can stop talking if a dangerous situation arises. People just don't seem to understand how distracting these telephone conversations are.”

According to the British research, reaction times on average were 30% slower when talking on a cellphone than when the test subjects were just over the legal intoxication limit. And they were nearly 50% slower than when driving stone-cold sober and phoneless.

Drivers tested were also less able to maintain a constant speed and to keep a safe following distance from a vehicle ahead.

A normal braking distance established to be 102 ft. at 70 mph for the test increased to 115 ft with the presence of alcohol, but climbed to 128 ft. with a hands-free phone and soared all the way to 148 ft. with a handheld phone. The 20 volunteers in the study, sponsored by an insurance company, were actually tested on a driving simulator.

Remember, before you blast me with pen or email, I don't want to see all mobile phone use banned. But I would love to see Joe and Jane Fourwheeler, not to mention their teenage kids, have to come to a complete stop before turning their cars into phone booths. On the other hand, truckers as trained, licensed, paid professionals should not be part of any such blanket ban.

But just as with drunk drivers, removing the menace of cellphone users from our roads is an issue worth talking about.

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