Callaghan: To ‘hands on the wheel,’ add ‘head in the game’: Hang up



Yet another study by yet another team of researchers has discovered what most of us know (but some choose to deny).

When it comes to dangerous distractions, talking on a cellphone held to your ear is exactly the same as talking with some sort of hands-free device. When I say exactly, I mean that both types of talkers are equally distracted and equally likely to hurt themselves, their passengers and others in an accident.

The latest study was funded by the AAA Foundation and conducted by the leading researcher in the field, David Strayer of the University of Utah. Cameras tracking head and eye movements, meters recording reaction time, and even a skull cap charting brain activity were all used on human subjects by the research team. Like nearly every previous study, Strayer’s team concluded that it is the conversation that creates the distraction, not the holding of the phone to an ear.

As these researchers like to repeat: “Hands-free is not risk-free.”

But the state of Washington says there are clear differences. The phone holder is a lawbreaker, the hands-free user a hero.

The first is such a danger to society that the Washington State Patrol hunts down and issues tickets that cost $124. In 2012, the patrol wrote 6,620 such citations. The Washington State Traffic Safety Commission funds enforcement drives, recently making them part of the Click It or Ticket efforts promoting seat-belt use. Between May 20 and June 2, state and local police wrote 1,448 cellphone violation tickets.

Drivers who use hands-free devices to conduct the same conversations are not only free from legal intervention, they are praised by some as responsible drivers. That sends the message that they can engage in longer and more-frequent conversations.

No, I haven’t gotten a ticket for cellphone use while driving. I’m not important enough or popular enough to get many calls. When I do, and it can’t wait, I pull over. But my hypocrisy meter goes off whenever I see the state patting itself on its Evergreen back because it is one of 11 states that require hands-free devices (and is among the 41 that ban texting while driving).

The National Transportation Safety Board isn’t impressed. In 2011, it urged states to ban all phone use by drivers, except in emergencies. No state has.

Even our Traffic Safety Commission acknowledges in its Target Zero strategy the “nearly unanimous” agreement among researchers that there is no difference. Angie Ward of the commission staff says it wishes the state law were more expansive. “It’s not a safe behavior no matter how you’re doing it,” Ward said.

The commission tries to make that clear when it talks about phone use, but still believes it is making roads safer by funding enforcement campaigns aimed only at hand-held use.

Hands are tied on hands-free

So why doesn’t the Legislature do what all the safety experts suggest? Because it can’t. The law we have took 10 years. Something tougher is considered political poison due to opposition from phone users addicted to their phones and the lobbying clout of the cellphone companies and car manufacturers.

But our intellectually flawed law is akin to admitting that all drunken driving is bad but we can arrest only those drunk on hard liquor because the beer and wine lobby is too powerful and we don’t want to alienate voters who like to get their drunk on.

It’ll only get worse as more new cars’ voice-activated systems allow drivers to do everything from update their Facebook status to order up a movie on Netflix. According to Strayer’s team, taking a phone call with a hands-free device is a “moderate risk,” while using interactive features is an “extensive risk.”

Very soon, thanks to the logic of the Legislature, we will witness a cellphone-holding driver on the shoulder getting a ticket while another driver zips by conducting a business meeting, playing a video game and watching a rerun of “Third Rock From The Sun” — all hands-free, of course, and all perfectly legal.