Driven to Distraction

In-cab technology might save you time and frustration, but it can also take your eyes and mind off the road.


These safety tips for using cell phones while driving are recommended by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.

  • Learn your phone’s keypad and its features, including speed dial and redial, before you take it on the road. Aim to operate it without looking.
  • Keep your phone in easy reach.
  • If the phone rings at an inconvenient time, don’t answer it.
  • When you do answer, promptly let the caller know you’re driving.
  • Don’t take notes or look up phone numbers.
  • Cut short stressful or emotional conversations. Resume them when you’re off the road.
  • If you must dial while driving, check the road and your mirrors every few digits.
  • Use a headset or other hands-free device.
  • Cell phones that send and receive e-mail, global positioning units that give directions when asked, sensors that buzz, chirp and vibrate when they detect problems, text-messaging systems built into the steering column, hundred-channel satellite radios – all these glowing screens, ringing phones, blinking instruments and cool gadgets make your job more efficient, but they also make the cab an increasingly distracting place.

    Today’s gadgetry was science fiction when Larry Scott of Poulsbo, Wash., an owner-operator leased to Werner Enterprises of Omaha, Neb., first went on the road in 1990.

    “I got a cell phone the first time they came out,” Scott says, “and when Werner started installing Qualcomm, I was one of the first drivers to sign up.”

    Scott believes the safety benefits of such devices far outweigh their drawbacks. “I have an 80-year-old mother, and knowing that I’m within two minutes of being tracked down and contacted anywhere in the country if my family needs me is great for my peace of mind. It makes me less distracted as a driver, not more.”

    Werner is among the fleets that advise against phone conversations or text exchanges while driving. “It is also against our policy for them to send a message over their Qualcomm system while they’re moving,” says Duane Henn, Werner vice president for safety.

    Such practices should be common sense, policy or no policy, Henn says. “If you’re moving at 85 feet a second, and you’re distracted even a few seconds, catastrophic events can occur very quickly.”

    Whatever their fleet policy, truckers should adopt a “just say no” attitude toward phoning or messaging while driving, says Barry Kantowitz, director of the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan. “We now know very clearly that your ability to drive a vehicle is compromised when you’re doing other things,” Kantowitz says.

    Donald Nehring of Southaven, Miss., an owner-operator leased to FedEx Ground and an America’s Road Team captain with 2.7 million safe miles, uses a headset for all phone conversations behind the wheel. “Just hold your hand up to the side of your head, even without a phone in it, and you’ll see that you lose a lot of peripheral vision,” Nehring says. “That’s not a safe thing to do.”

    Scott keeps his phoning and messaging behind the wheel to a minimum and notes that pulling over a big rig is sometimes less safe than taking a quick call. “There’s no way you’re going to be able to do that on a snow-covered two-lane road, or in rush-hour traffic in downtown Indianapolis,” he says.

    Kantowitz says truckers need to train themselves to not automatically answer the phone when it rings. “In fact, answering is probably the most dangerous thing to do, because you’re not expecting it, and it could ring at a bad time.”

    Although some would lump all in-cab or dashboard communications devices together, a cell phone is not an FM radio, and a CB is not a GPS unit, and how we use these devices varies markedly, says David Anderson, director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Health at George Mason University.

    “We have got to look at these technologies individually,” he says. “They are not the same.”

    In November, the center released a comprehensive report on driver distractions that included a review of all the literature. The report, online at, offers no quick fixes, says Anderson. “We don’t recommend a simple solution,” he says.

    Most driver distractions, of course, aren’t high-tech. Eating, drinking, reading, applying makeup, changing clothes, unfolding a road map, attending to a child or a pet in the jump seat – even sexual activity, as truckers have witnessed among four-wheelers – all provide state-of-the-art distraction the old-fashioned way. A fatal February crash in Colorado involved a truck driver who said her rig drifted onto the shoulder while she was exercising. Among the biggest driver distractions, Anderson says, is simply daydreaming. Being worried or preoccupied is also a danger, Nehring says.

    Cell phones make a handy, newsworthy target only because they are new, numerous and highly visible, Anderson says. “You can tell when the driver next to you is using a cell phone, as opposed to when that driver is lost in thought,” he says. “A lot of people would like to make the equation, ‘Driver distraction equals cell phones.’ That is not fair, and it is not true.”

    The safety benefits of cell phones, moreover, are more far-ranging than merely 911 calls, Anderson says. “They call up someone and say, ‘Talk to me, keep me awake,'” Anderson says.

    Focusing all our distraction concerns on cell phones keeps us from understanding the larger picture and preparing for the technologies to come, Anderson says.

    Text-based, onboard telematics, only now becoming available in high-end, four-wheel vehicles, are especially worrisome to many crusaders against driver distraction. “They say that before long, we’ll all be able to surf the Web and read our e-mail while driving,” wrote Car Talk radio host Tom Magliozzi in April 2001. “Instead of having your family killed by a driver who’s distractedly talking to his broker on a cell phone, they can get killed by a guy who’s distractedly ordering candy from”

    Truckers, though, are long familiar with the safety benefits of such systems. Scott was glad of his Qualcomm unit when he lost an air line on his trailer in the middle of Wyoming, between cellular coverage areas. He reported his problem via satellite, without having to hike to a phone, and a mechanic was on the scene two hours later. And he was glad to be distracted by an in-cab buzzer three years ago on I-80 in Indiana: It meant he just lost his water pump. He was able to pull over safely without any engine damage.

    “I find the Qualcomm in particular very, very helpful,” Scott says. “And I don’t think Werner would have put them in 7,000 trucks, with drivers of all different experience levels, if they didn’t feel the advantages far outweighed the disadvantages.”

    Just about every proposed high-tech safety device has a potentially distracting element. Some ring bells or vibrate the driver’s seat when the truck is drifting out of its lane or following the next vehicle too closely, but the alarm itself can be startling. Night vision systems increase visibility but also require the driver to take his eyes off the road.

    Some safety experts have expressed concern over the newest dashboard technology, satellite radio, which offers truckers 100 nationwide channels to surf. But Nehring, one of the first XM Satellite Radio subscribers, says the service eliminates the perennial distraction of hunting for a clear station.

    “I preset my channels, and mostly I listen to the Open Road, the truckers’ channel,” Nehring says. “So it hardly ever gets off 168, unless I move it to 144 for a NASCAR race. It’s a lot less trouble than before.”

    To some safety advocates, even talking on the CB while driving is a bad idea. But a typical CB conversation is very different from a typical cell-phone conversation, Anderson says. “The CB conversation is much shorter and more staccato. It’s just not the same type of use.”

    Cell phones have generated more public static than CBs because the CB is much older and nowhere near as widespread, says Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the National Association of Governors’ Highway Safety Representatives. Plus, Adkins says, no theater audience was ever vexed by the squawk of a CB, so no public resentments have built up.

    Many potential distractions could be eliminated through better engineering, Anderson says. For example, he has a CD player in his car, but can insert and eject CDs only via the trunk – in other words, while parked.

    The most commonly advocated engineering solutions are headsets and other handless technologies, such as voice-activated phones, but research indicates that driver attention may be dangerously distracted even with eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. In a University of Utah laboratory study reported by the National Safety Council in fall 2001, drivers engaged in phone conversations missed twice as many traffic signals as other drivers and reacted more slowly to the ones they did see. The results were the same whether or not the phone was hands-free.

    “It’s worse when you take your mind and your eyes off the road, but it’s bad whenever you take your mind off the road,” Kantowitz says.
    Yes, conversation with a passenger in the jump seat is distracting, too, but with a crucial difference, safety experts say: Unlike the person on the other end of the phone, the passenger sees the same road conditions you do, and knows when to shut up.

    “In today’s society, we’re all multitasking more, and the trucker may be better able to multitask than the non-professional driver,” Anderson says. “Truckers probably know better about constantly swiveling their head, checking their mirrors and so on.”

    A good driver is good at multitasking, Nehring says. “Studies show that a professional driver does 180 things per mile – a decision, a calculation or a correction. That’s 90,000 things in a 10-hour day, which is why we’re mentally tired at night.”

    But just because most professional drivers are good at multitasking doesn’t mean they all are, Nehring says. “I see a lot of ignorant acts out here, and I see a lot of people who don’t need to drive a truck. This is not for everybody.” Truckers need to realize their limitations and not push their luck, Nehring says.

    Because truckers are professional drivers, Kantowitz says, they’re behind the wheel for many more hours a day than the average driver. After the first four hours, even the most expert professional driver begins to experience slower reflexes and ebbing concentration, making divided attention all the more dangerous, he says. “You may not be having obvious trouble, but you’re impaired all the same. People are not good at monitoring themselves.”

    Adkins says drivers are becoming more aware of the dangers. “Driver distraction is still a relatively new issue, but the word is getting out.”

    Anderson says the long-term solution is the three E’s: engineering, enforcement and education. “Education means becoming more aware of the role that distractions play in our lives. It means an honest self-appraisal of our driving and the things that distract us. And enforcement means self-enforcement, too. It doesn’t have to be cops.”


    Just as Mothers Against Drunk Driving made alcohol impairment a national issue in the 1980s, so groups such as Advocates for Cell Phone Safety have sought to keep driver distraction on the front burner in recent years. Prominent in the cause are Tom and Ray Magliozzi, syndicated columnists and hosts of Car Talk on National Public Radio, who give away “Drive Now, Talk Later” bumper stickers and denounce cell phones and onboard telematics.

    So far, the only statewide ban on hand-held cell phone use while driving is New York’s, but similar bills were introduced in 35 legislatures in 2001. A number of cities have adopted such bans, the largest being Miami and Santa Fe, N.M.

    The public pressure for these diminished after Sept. 11, when the emergency benefits of cell phones were well publicized, but continuing incidents could easily revive the debate. In February, a 20-year-old driver talking on a cell phone behind the wheel of the Ford Explorer she had bought that day jumped a guardrail on the Capital Beltway in Maryland and killed five people, including herself. Proponents of cell-phone restrictions in Maryland and the District of Columbia were quick to cite the wreck as evidence.

    “It’s an issue, for automobiles and commercial vehicles, but it’s certainly not our top priority,” says Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the National Association of Governors’ Highway Safety Representatives. States are far more interested in fatigue as a truck-safety issue, Adkins says.

    “The whole cell phone issue has been overblown,” Adkins says. “There’s no reason to single them out, and there needs to be a lot more research. Still, our policy is that all drivers, whether of commercial or passenger vehicles, should pull over to talk on their phones. But we are looking to the employers to take the lead on this. There’s not a government solution for everything.”

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