HolidayBuyer's Guide

For drivers, a traffic jam of distractions

Cell phones are one thing, and bans have been ineffective. But other gadgets are ready to steal attention.

Michael Trujillo is beginning to sound like an outlaw. He has turned against a law he was instrumental in passing.

As vice chairman of the Public Safety Committee for Santa Fe, N.M., Trujillo supported and promoted the city's adoption three years ago of a ban on the use of all but hands-free cell phones while driving.

"I was seeing people run into things, and it was happening because they were on their cell phones," said Trujillo, who owns a valet parking service.

He left the committee in December, but his feelings about the law changed long before that.


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"In the beginning I pushed it pretty hard," he said. "But then I realized, 'God, how stupid is this law?'"

Leaving the hands free had the potential to increase, not decrease, driver distraction, he said. "If you have hands free, not only are you able to do something else, but you are able to do three different tasks at the same time." He now thinks the law should be scrapped.

Since New York passed the nation's first statewide law banning handheld cell phones while driving four years ago, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., have followed with laws that went into effect last summer. Some cities, like Santa Fe, have passed similar legislation, and more than a dozen states have partial bans or bills pending.

"People are ignoring it"
The laws have often been ignored, and enforcement has been spotty at best. Some drivers are not even aware they are breaking the law. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey, released Tuesday, showed that more people than ever are phoning while driving, and only a small percentage are using headsets.

"People are ignoring it," said Steve Carrellas, New Jersey coordinator for the National Motorists Association, speaking of that state's law. "It's just like the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. Despite what people say in polls, what the vast majority of people are actually doing is not complying with it."

But cell phones, hands-free or handheld, are just a part of the greater problem of driver distraction, one that may become worse with the spread of technology.

No one doubts that using a cell phone can cause lapses in attention. Anyone who has groped for a phone bleating at the bottom of a purse or dialed while at the steering wheel knows this. The question, at one time, was whether that was any worse than, say, unwrapping a cheeseburger or lighting a cigarette. Now it's also a question of whether a cell phone is more of a hazard than playing a DVD, using the calendar or e-mail functions on a wireless handheld device, or picking out a playlist on an iPod.

A few states have laws related to watching movies and television while driving, or placing a TV in front of the driver. But what if the cell phone screen doubles as a TV? Of if the phone can take pictures? Or the organizer can send instant messages? Or the dashboard has an ever-present electronic map?

This, in part, is what inspired Trujillo to take a stand. "There isn't a law that will be able to catch up," he said. "If you ban cell phones, then someone else will come up with something else."

Matt Sundeen, a policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures who focuses on transportation, agreed. "Driver distraction has been an issue since the car has been around," he said. "But now you have all these different technologies where legislators can't possibly write legislation for specific technologies. It's impossible to keep pace." The result, Sundeen said, is a trend toward legislation that is worded more broadly to address the new behaviors. The Washington, D.C., law, for example, not only requires that mobile phones be equipped with a hands-free accessory but also prohibits reading, writing and "using personal communications technologies."

Sundeen said it was hard to gauge whether any of the laws had helped to reduce the number of traffic accidents. "It is difficult to determine what role, if any, a cell phone plays in most car accidents," he said. "Even if you can correlate the exact moment of the crash with phone records, you don't know if it's the cause or not."

David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah who studies driver distraction, said laws like those in New York and New Jersey were well intentioned and "not an unreasonable first attempt to solve the problem." But, he said, "they make an error in assuming that it can be remedied by a hands-free cell phone."

He added: "The laws could very plausibly be counterproductive if they give people the message that a handheld phone is unsafe but a hands-free phone is safe. You're encouraging people to engage in a type of activity that is no more safe than the old way of talking on a cell phone."

Even before the New York law went into effect, studies indicated that it was the distraction of the conversation itself--not the act of dialing or holding the phone--that accounted for most of the increased risk.

"There is really good evidence from six independent studies from five different labs that have all come to the same conclusions," Dr. Strayer said. "There is no difference between hand-held and hands-free cell phone use while driving."

He continued: "The main source of the interference is mental, cognitive. It turns out you're tuning out some important details about driving. When using a cell phone, peoples' eyes will go to a place or thing, but they won't see it. It won't register."

Hall Smyth, an exhibition designer who lives in Pond Eddy, N.Y., and has an office in Queens, two hours away by car, said he had experienced the opposite phenomenon. "If I need to attend to the driving, I fade out of the conversation," he said. "But I can see you'd easily do it the other way."

Smyth no longer uses a handheld phone while driving, however, after an encounter with a New York City police officer.

For months after the state's hands-free requirement went into effect in 2001, Smyth simply ignored it, chatting away practically nonstop during his long drives into New York City. Then he was pulled over one day in Manhattan. "I was just driving down Seventh Avenue and a police van pulled me over," he said. "I couldn't believe they actually enforced it."

Were it not for the $95 ticket, he said, it is very likely that he would still be driving with the phone virtually cemented to his ear.

Other drivers don't willfully disobey the law; they just aren't aware of it.

"I just can't stand them"
The ban in New Jersey has not been a problem for Mireya Ortiz. She didn't know it existed. "Are you serious?" Ortiz said after maneuvering her car into a parking space in Jersey City, mascara wand in hand. "In New York I knew about it, but not here."

Ortiz, a social worker who lives in North Bergen, N.J., has spent years using her car as an ersatz phone booth. Her three teenagers call her cell phone often, and when she isn't taking calls from her children, she is talking to friends in New York and Miami.

Ortiz said she found out about the New York ban only after a friend was stopped there for driving without a headset. Yet Ortiz has no plans to buy a headset, even for improved safety. "I just can't stand them," she said.

If she gets pulled over, she plans to employ the same tactics that her friend did. "Oh, she just flirted out of it, you know," Ortiz said. "She didn't get the ticket."

Hands-free setups are far from ideal. Tommy O'Dea, an electrical contractor in Manhattan, has a cradle glued to his car's console, a microphone on the visor and a speaker mounted under the dashboard.

"A lot of people complain that I sound very far away," he said. "And if I have the window rolled down and I'm on the highway, I find myself shouting."

Katie McCormick Lelyveld has come up with a creative way to conform to at least the spirit of the ban in Washington, D.C. While she doesn't often use her headset with her BlackBerry phone, she doesn't hold it up to her ear, either. Instead, she uses the speakerphone and drives her Lexus SUV with her phone in her lap or in the car door. "It's not worth getting caught," she said.

McCormick Lelyveld's car does not have a navigation system or a DVD player, but she does run her iPod through her radio, necessitating the occasional adjustment of the click wheel.

Her speakerphone has become something of a style statement. "I kind of like the idea of having people think I'm talking to myself," she said.

Reading and responding to e-mail messages while driving, an act that requires multiple finger taps and focusing on a small screen, can be a major distraction. Although McCormick Lelyveld no longer subscribes to the e-mail service on the BlackBerry, she confessed that when she did, she read a message or two in the car.

But Christine Nesbit, a lawyer in Eugene, Ore., where there is no law related to cell phone use, would never do such a thing. Nesbit owns a BlackBerry that receives e-mail messages, but she turns off the alert when she is driving.

Her self-discipline came as a result of having worked as a prosecutor for the Eugene Municipal Court, where she frequently handled traffic cases. "What you learn is that if you are doing anything that impairs your perception and your ability to do this incredibly multifaceted job of driving safely, it's dangerous."

Trujillo cannot claim to be so virtuous. His Treo cell phone is fully enabled with the e-mail feature. Does he ever check e-mail in the car? "I couldn't lie to you," he said. "Yes. But I only do it at stop signs and stoplights."

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