Mobile Phones in Cars

I only have one blog and I need to rant about something totally unrelated to RPGs… but somewhat geeky… so feel free to move on or add some oil on the fire.

On April 1st, a new law (for real, not as an April Fool’s) passed in Quebec that strictly forbids the use of hand-held phones in cars.

I must say: It’s about freaking time! While I have been guilty of doing it ever since I lost my Bluetooth headset, I fully agree that driving with only one hand is dangerous especially if you drive stick (I speak from personal experience).

But thats not here nor there.

What pisses me off is that the lobby (which includes Government institution like our Public Health organizations) that pushed to get this legislation out also wants to ban the use of mobile phones in cars period, hands-free included (they say the new law is just the 1st step).

They argue that it’s not the fact that phones are hand held that causes accidents but the mere act of speaking on a mobile causes sufficient distraction to increase accidents

While I can imagine that speaking and driving is more likely to cause distraction than having all one’s concentration on driving (and who has…. I mean people freaking daydream while driving), I really don’t see the difference between speaking on a Hands-free device and talking to your car pooling partner or discussing with your significant other.

To those who push for complete banning of Hands-free mobile phones in cars I say Bull$hit!

What’s next? Prevent children from talking to parents, make arguing with a passenger illegal?

I’m not a fan of the all too easy slippery slide argument… but I strongly believe that the opponents of mobiles are pushing this one to far.

And wait till they start having more studies that it induces cancer… I can already see it the ads:

Second hand mobile phone usage causes cancer in nearby children, please refrain from using it near yours.

Ahhh, that felt good!

The mike is on, I’m I full of it, am I spot on or am I missing something?


  1. You think that’s bad? I know people who have text messaged while driving!

    What the hell?

    In any case, I would agree with them that using a cell phone is actually more distracting than just talking to a person beside you, as the cell phone needs to be managed before and after the call as well. Scrolling through the contact list to dial, for instance.

    (Arguing is, of course, more distracting than either, but that can be done with other passengers or over the phone, so it’s not a case for one or the other.)

    As to whether handsfree sets should be banned? I don’t think so, and I doubt that would ever pass.

  2. Mobile phones in cars have been banned (all forms) from certain countries already…

    India comes to mind…

    Heres an interesting, if outdated list (and no, it’s not a Rick-Roll)

  3. The only argument that gave me pause when discussing this issue with a friend was about what we named “phone blank stare”.

    When you talk to someone who is not physically present, the human brain does it best to visualize the other party. When doing this, your stare goes blank and you don’t pay as much information to your visual cues because your brain is trying to pick-up body-language from a construct in your mind.

    When you talk to somebody present in your car, your brain doesn’t bother imagining your audience. You just peek in a mirror or turn your head once in a while to get a visual update.

    All in all, this means that when you talk on the phone, there’s a chance your brain will go AWOL for a few seconds…

    The logical part of me accepts the argument, but the rest of me hopes we can work through this. (And the evil part of me just hopes natural selection will not cause too much collateral damage)

  4. I would think it would depend on what sort of road you’re on as well. I’ve generally found few problems with eating, drinking, talking or chatting on the phone while driving down a highway. I’m not half so adventurous while driving in cities. I don’t always answer my cell phone while driving.

    As far as your lobbyists having goals… I’m not much into politics but I suppose if you’re lucky they’re just bartering. Kind of a “let us get this law through because it makes sense and you can brush us off on another issue where we’re more extremist”.

  5. Did you never notice how many people are not even able to walk(!) and phone at the same time? Most people start to walk slower while talking into their phone, some even have to stop. If that observation is true for others, I would support such a law.

    OTH, its probably some kind of training. If you spend you childhood on the mobile (as todays kids do), you probably don’t suffer from the same problem.

  6. PM: That argument does appeal to my internal sense of logic… it’d be interested to get this from another source (insert ‘Citation Needed’ joke here)

    Lanir: I guess so, but the lobbyist are taking the approach of ‘say it often enough and people will believe it blindly’

    (I’d make a global warming remark here but let’s keep that rant for another time)… πŸ™‚

    Karsten: You’re right… But while I agree with Graham’s point of ‘distraction while taking the call or dialing’ I really don’t want to buy the talking causes accidents argument.

    I mean experienced drivers don’t put a lot of brain Processing power behind driving… they mostly rely on reflexes to bring driving to the forefront of tasks to react to unforseen stimuli (like another driver cutting or the car in front breaking suddently)

    But I guess that talking on the phone does change the main focus of the brain from driving to discussing and decoding one’s message in the absence of visual clues…

  7. There is some research that says reaction times while using hands-free kits are worse than when under the influence of alcohol.

    However how would you enforce it – how can you tell the difference between someone talking on a hands-free and singing along to the radio πŸ™‚

  8. From Sam’s link:

    Several studies have found it is the increased demands on the brain involved in holding a conversation on a phone – whether hand-held or hands-free – that’s the real danger while driving, not handling of the device.

    If a person is in a car they are aware of the pressures on the driver at any given moment and regulate conversation levels to allow them to concentrate. However, someone at the other end of the phone cannot see road conditions and make such adjustments, say researchers.

    “The danger with a conversation on a mobile is that it psychologically removes you from the vehicle,” says Cris Burgess, an expert on driving behaviour. It’s the same if you are holding the phone or using a hands-free kit, he says.


    As for the talking vs signing… frankly if you ban one, you should ban them both! That’s noise pollution and Illegal pirating of music…. Organic Analog reproduction, no matter how badly done, is still reproduction! Wait till the RIAA gets cracking on this!


  9. valerette says:

    This kind of law is a pet peeve of mine, because the logic that is used to ban cell phones can apply to so many other in-car activities. Some of them are obviously stupid, like the lady driving down the freeway trying to dip her fried zucchinis in the ranch dressing packet she’s holding with two fingers by her steering wheel, but where is the line?

    I am not a fan of slippery slope arguments either but I don’t see a slope here, many of these activities are equivalent and the only thing that sets cell phones apart is that they are relative newcomers to the driving distractions game. Personally I find children to be VERY distracting; maybe I’ll contact my legislator about getting them banned.

  10. Here in the nanny state…. I mean, the UK, it’s been illegal to use mobile phones while driving for a while, and there’s also been the constant push to ban hands-free use too.

    Personally, I think there’s two problems with the law; it’s too specific and it’s become just another earner for the government – as with speed cameras, it’s just another way to tax folks with little or no right of appeal. But don’t get me started on that one……….

    The way I see it, dangerous driving is dangerous driving; there’s no reason to have a law against using a cellphone while driving any more than there need be a law forbidding eating a banana while at the wheel. If you’re not driving without care and attention, that’s all which need be said. Putting specific situations into law generates exceptions; that’s not good. I’ve seen people use a hands-free kit while waving their arms around and swerving all over the place before!

  11. Fried Zuccini in Ranch Dressing…. oh man now I’m hungry!

    Welcome to the Blog Valerette! (Same to Lanir.. although I might have already done so…. twice)

    The BBC article and PM’s argument makes me wonder about this. My natural reflex though is to focus toward a self discipline apporach when using a hands free phone rather than legislation.

  12. Here’s an idea… why not make reckless driving illegal, regardless of whether you are being reckless because you are on the phone or applying makeup or arguing with your spouse.

    Oh wait, it already is…

  13. Sandrinnad says:

    Personally I’m all for banning hand-held cell use in a moving vehicle. I’m not sure about hands-free.

    Thing is, talking on the phone splits your attention in a way that talking to someone in the car just doesn’t – you need to focus more (to make up for the lack of body language) and the person you’re talking to can’t see the road conditions (although some passengers are pretty darn oblivious) – all of which have been mentioned above.

    Also though, there usually seems to be sort of a ‘we don’t talk about particularly difficult or stressful things in the car because driving takes too much attention’ unspoken pact between the people in the vehicle that just doesn’t exist when you’re on the phone. The person on the other end, even though they may know intellectually you are in the car, doesn’t picture you there. They picture you wherever they are (or in some random, amorphous spot), which there’s a fair chance isn’t a car, so that little unspoken pact thing doesn’t come into play. Even when arguments/stressful conversations/etc…. do come up between people in the car (because they do, I’m sure we’ve all been there) there’s generally some warning whereas with a phone call….not usually so much.

  14. In New Brunswick the government has decided not to pass a law like this because there are already laws on the books with regards to dangerous driving. If the person is being reckless whether its talking on a phone, singing Britney Spears or eating a Baconator while swerving in an out of traffic or cutting people off, they are dangerous and should be dealt with. We are over-regulated as it is. Leave some discretion to the authorities to make the call.

  15. Hear Hear!

    Deadshot wins the super secret ‘I said Bacon’ award! Congrats!

    Damn, I’m hungry again!

  16. There’s a bacon award? Damn! This blog is cool! πŸ˜‰

  17. Woot! Thanks! πŸ˜‰

    I once said that if love had a taste, it would be Bacon.

    (I’ll probably have that written on my Tombstone! )

    No wonder 2 major religions forbid it!

  18. Cell phones are a big pet peeve of mine. Even while gaming, you work hard to set a mood, building tension and drama, then out of the blue “IT’S RAINING MEN!” and one of the players instantly forgets about the game to talk about some garbage all by themselves.

    I’ve had jerks park themselves in my driveway while they talked on the phone, and refused to move because, “It’s important!” Folks blabbing away, yelling into the things when I’m trying to eat. Or even the hands free jobs where you can’t tell if somebody is talking to you or talking on the phone.

    Personally, I don’t have a beef about cell phones, it’s the rude jerks that operate them that I hate. You make it illegal to use one in the car . . . so what, there is no way to enforce this law. Police officers are already busy enough as it is, why waste there time with this kind of stuff?


  19. Cell phones usually ring for one reason at our game table… and when it happens, we all shout in Unison:

    ‘Wife Check’!

    A law against Jerks… now that I’d support… I’d even finance Jerk detector research! πŸ™‚

  20. Sandrinnad says:

    A law against Jerks… now that I’d support… I’d even finance Jerk detector research!

    just tell me where to send a cheque πŸ˜€

  21. Stephen says:

    I work in the area of speech recognition and sythesis. Many years ago I read a paper which got people to do various maths exercises by reading the questions to them and measuring how long it took.

    They tried different speech encodings and compared the time – the idea being that you could tell how much concentration different encodings took.

    The results were interesting. GSM was bad, satelite phone very bad and normal phone lines mediocre, high quality audio was the best. So regardless of the hand-free-ness, there’s more cognitive load to understanding a mobile (GSM) phone call than talking to someone sitting beside you.

    I don’t have a reference – the paper was on paper and I’ve never managed to find it online πŸ™

  22. Hey Stephen! Welcome to the blog…

    That’s a good argument… I bet we’ll have to have GSM sound recognition training in order to have a permit to talk on mobiles in the car…

    The arguments brought here today were very interesting. Enough to say that I’ll probably limit my car-phone talk to emergencies and asking my wife what kind of sushi she wanted for the pickup… πŸ™‚

    BTW: I met my wife in a Speech Language Pathology lab (I was a lab tech) where we worked with recorded speech cut to individual letters to test recognition…

  23. Geek…

  24. Noctambulist says:

    While the “lack of body language” argument makes sense, I think it is being somewhat overstated. Does that mean then that listening to talk radio is just as dangerous because my mind is trying to visualize the people in the conversation on the radio? Or am I being overly distracted by trying to visualize the baseball game on the radio? What about two-way radios, like police use or an airline pilot talking to the control tower? Are these as dangerous as talking on a cell phone for the same reasons? I’m sure it has an effect, and is more distracting than talking to someone actually in the car, but I don’t think it’s the MAIN reason for accidents. I think it’s just people not paying attention, and we can’t legislate distractions, especially when probably the #1 distraction for any driver is day-dreaming.

    I remember way back in the stone ages (or at least in the days before cell phones) when I took driver’s education in high-school, the instructor told us that the biggest cause of accidents is complacency. When you drive the same route, day after day, you tend to drive it without thinking and are less prepared for a sudden change in the environment. He said that every once in a while, you should take a different route to work or wherever, just to change things up a bit. Just think about the difference in how much you pay attention to the road on your way to work, as opposed to going to a place you’ve never been to before.

    I think it’s just part of human nature to become complacent with the familiar, and the main thing people need to realize is that they are driving a huge hunk of metal at high speed and need to be careful. Whether it’s eating, yelling at the kids, talking on a cell phone, changing the dial on the radio, or looking at your GPS, these are all things that can distract you at the wrong time. The hoopla over cell phones is the latest craze because it’s a new distraction. GPS systems will probably be next.

    Just do it when you have to, and be careful when you do.

  25. Talking to a phone when driving is technically illegal in Finland. There are no resources to watching it, so it doesn’t matter. Hence, technically illegal. (Personally I don’t do it; either the person next to me, if any, talks or I find a suitable bus stop or something and stop there).

  26. Sandrinnad says:

    @Noctambulist: I actually knew someone who wouldn’t use the radio at all because it was too distracting for him. In theory, anything on the radio could be as or more distracting than a phone conversation if you’re invested in it, but the phone requires an active participation that the radio doesn’t.

    The main reason for accidents? Bad choices.

  27. Noctambulist
    Listening to the radio is a different cognitive task than talking on a phone. It is a matter of passive vs. active. Part of conversing with people is modeling their internal states (guessing what they are thinking and how they will respond to what you say and how you say it.) With a one way communication, you aren’t spending nearly as much time modeling the psychological state of the speaker.

    The phone vs a speaker who is present in the car poses two seperate but important problems. First off, as mentioned above, when the speaker is present, they tend to be much more aware of the conditions that apply that might make it a good idea for them to shut up for a minute and let you focus on driving. Secondly (and touched on above) A phone call is an informationally poor communication path. Very few of the physical and social cues that your brain uses to model the internal states of other people are transfered via the phone, and cell phones tend to transfer even less information than regular phones. When faced with a low bandwidth information stream, your brain works a lot harder building that predictive model, cutting into its ability to process other outside stimuli. Essentially while you are speaking to someone face to face, you are bombarded with information about the other speaker. Your mind is able to grab the most relevant pieces of information and let the rest flow past (unless you have one of the cognitive “disorders” like low latent inhibition) When you are speaking on the phone though, the information stream isn’t nearly as rich, so your brain grabs on to every little piece and tries to shove them together to form a whole from less information than it would prefer to have. While it is trying to work with limited information, it is actually worse at handling other data streams like your awareness of the the other people on the road.

    Give humanity 5-10 thousand more years of cars and cell phones and I suspect that we’ll overcome that particular piece of cognitive hardwiring, though I suspect that we’ll have technological solutions well before that point (or we’ll get socialogical solutions like forbidding the use of a cell phone by the operator of a moving vehicle.)

  28. I for one can vouch that passengers in a car will react to situations and stop talking.

    I was driving with Yan this weekend and we had a very lively discussion. As I reached a point where 2 highways meet, I had to enter much denser traffic.

    Both we both stopped talking instantly.

    So yeah I can totally understand that this wouldn’t happen during a cell phone conversation… and I’ll train myself to tell my interlocutor to hold on if I get in a complicated driving environment.

    However, I must say that I’m proud of some of our citizens, Ever since April 1st passed, the number of hand held cell phones in running cars have decreased and I’ve seen people pull over to talk on the phone.