Drivers Hold Phones…Why?

Take time to make a real connection between your car, your phone, and your brain!

A person in a car at the steering wheel holding a cell phone with one hand. Distracted driving. Photo from Belfast Ireland paper.
Drivers Hold Phones. Source: BelfastLive, 4/3/2019

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I have an International Driver’s License and will be visiting your country for a few months from Ireland. I like to look at cars and the drivers in them! I noticed that many U.S. drivers like to hold their phones when they drive. They seem to be in newer cars, so why don’t they go hands free instead?  Or use Siri or the Android voices on their phones?  Back home I think  we are less trusting when drivers hold phones. Thomas, Belfast.

Dear Thomas: I looked up the regulations for smartphones in your country. Except for driving on the other side of the road, the regulations are similar. But, the Northern Irish may be more aware of the issue. According to a newspaper survey of 1,000 readers, 88% reported seeing drivers using their phones within the past week. Yet just 30% admitted to touching their own phones while driving.

Your question gets to the heart of new technology in cars. A few years back I leased a Ford C-Max that could parallel park itself.  I tried out the feature once or twice and then never used it again. My logic was that I had to overthink it when I had to line up the cars just right to initiate parking. Second, at that time a car that parked itself seemed strange and novel. Third, parallel parking comes easy to me and I didn’t feel the need for this extra help. 

It turns out that in this country many people have newer technology on their cars, but like me, they are not using it. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (like the R.A.C.) finds that people are not aware of the features. They discovered that 25% of the U.S. drivers did not realize their vehicles had factory installed voice control technology. Two caveats: the respondents were over age 65 and the survey item did not distinguish built-in connectivity from Bluetooth. The good news is that nearly 50% of their vehicles did have this technology, so there was an opportunity to learn.

So, how do people find out about the technology? 

I recall that in the case of my self-parking Ford, the salesman tried to explain the feature but he was not  so familiar with it. He ended up recommending that I watch the videos when I got home. In the opt-cit AAA research study of older people, nearly half said that they “figured it out themselves”; twenty percent said through the dealer, and about 12% through the owner’s manual. Strikingly, 13% admitted they never learned to use the technology! 

So, to answer your question- why do drivers continue to hold their phone?  They don’t know better! But this is going to be related to the age of the driver. Bluetooth technology is now in about 3 out of 5 vehicles here. Apple CarPlay or Android Auto might be more intuitive to drivers –  to younger aged ones. 

There’s one more thing to keep in mind. Are drivers safer because they are using their smartphones in the car? An academic institution, Virginia Tech, does lab research and consistently reports that drivers who use hands-free devices are less likely to get into a crash. However, many transportation and safety officials disagree. Interacting with an electronic device often requires pushing buttons or looking at displays, which means taking eyes (and concentration) off the road. The National Safety Council says drivers carrying on a conversation on a cellphone can overlook up to 50% of what is occurring outside the windshield and the part of the brain that processes moving things is reduced by up to a third. 

As you process that and get accustomed to driving here, there are lots of elements to consider. For example, getting directions, studying U.S. traffic rules and driving on the right. If you plan to go hands-free here, take the time to make a real connection between your car, your phone, and your brain.

Cell Phone in the Car?

Dad and husband are hung up on my car phone. Cannot hang it up!

A cartoon showing rear window of a car with stick figures for mom, dad, kids, and mom's phone.
Cell Phone in Car? image credit:Tom Whyatt

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  We got a new car that has an Android Auto dashboard and it feels much safer than my old car. I can answer a cell phone in the car from a click on the steering wheel. But,  both my husband and Dad are insisting that I not use a cell phone in the car. They do not have my responsibilities! We have two children and a new baby. It seems like I am on the road all day picking up or dropping off. When I use the cell phone in the car the time passes faster and I do not have as much catch up at home. I am a safe driver and of the opinion that they are not experienced with these newer features. Leah, Claremont

Dear Leah: You have probably seen those yellow stickers on the back of car windows that say “Baby on Board” or “Precious Cargo.” No matter what age group we drive it’s vital to keep that in mind. 

On the subject of Android Auto & CarPlay safety, I am not an expert and technology has evolved since I first started this column. Researchers typically evaluate 3 sources of cell phone distraction in the car: visual distraction, manual distraction, and  cognitive distraction. Your hands-free dashboard helps reduce the manual distraction for incoming calls. It’s a little trickier to reduce visual distractions for outgoing calls but voice commands can dial the phone number (or text). Older people, perhaps like your Dad, have been found to be slower to understand and deploy such features. 

That said, there is more to safety than physically using a phone to call or text. Cognitive distraction occurs because  we have limited processing ability. The mental faculties we need to keep that 3,500 lb people-mover positioned between lines and avoid collisions are also used for speech, visualization, and memory- the stuff of two way conversation. For more insight into cognitive distraction, look here. Most of the time we have the cognitive bandwidth to process the road and the talk. Yet it’s those one-off moments when you do not, and there are unanticipated hazards. Drivers cannot organize or anticipate these. 

Reduce Time & Effort:

To reduce the risk, here are two recommendations: first, make these hands-free  phone calls very short. A short ‘yes’ or ‘no’ conversation, or ‘be there in ten minutes’ is going to be less cognitively taxing than an intricate discussion say with your loan agent or insurance company. Second, limit the number of these conversations. The longer you spend driving and chatting, the greater the likelihood that you will encounter some danger. 

That said, you have another option. In the spirit of what your husband and Dad recommend, you can always pull off to the side of the road or find a parking lot. Take your longer calls (or texts) from there. 

Modeling You!

But, I have a deeper concern. You mentioned that you have three children in the car. When  you spend time there on the phone you are implicitly  teaching these youngsters that is an acceptable behavior. So, when they become teens you should not be surprised if they too drive with phones and model you.  Young children constantly observe what their parents do and say. I am guessing that you do not want to teach them that phones come first, family time comes second, and road safety is third. 

So, not to shame you- mothers have too much on their plates- but it is important to engage in  real conversations with your children, even when you are firmly planted in the driver’s seat. Some of our best conversations can be side by side, looking out the window. You will learn a lot about your childrens’ days at school, friendships, and current interests if you ask questions and listen carefully. If it’s hard to get started, engage them with wayfaring  (see DearSmartphone column) and the local geography. If that doesn’t suit you, seek out a local carpool with nearby families. 

It’s hard to imagine travel in cars without phones these days- they help us navigate to places, anticipate the traffic, and update those last minute shopping lists. But phones should never  squeeze out the precious moments we have with our children, and send them a message that cell phones get answered first.  

Phones Don’t Work in Emergency

The power went out….the phone line went down….what next?

A log between the Marin County Sheriff and a user on Facebook, warning the user to not call 911 for updates on the cell phone outage. Doing so jeopardizes the entire emergency network.
Marin County Sheriff’s Office log on Facebook. KCBS Radio. Nov. 9, 2021

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My parent’s neighbor has an older phone that plugs into the wall. She lost power when the phone lines went down last month and is worried now that phones don’t work in an emergency. I have a cell phone and during that outage the calls got jammed. But we used a computer and Nextdoor to figure out what was going on.  How can I help this neighbor get better prepared next time? Alix, Belvedere

Dear Alix: It’s great that you are thinking forward and helping neighbors! Some communities have a watch list for those in need,  particularly useful when phones won’t work in an emergency and there’s a need to evacuate. Hopefully that is not foreseeable.

For now,  investigate whether her old style  phone is hard wired into the wall, or is a more modern device that plugs into a wall jack with Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP). Telzio says, looks-wise, VOIP phones and analog phones are indistinguishable to the average person and provide the same functionality.

People with VOIP phones think they are safe because they plug into a wall jack. But they are often in triple jeopardy in an emergency. These phones need electricity, fresh batteries, and wireless to work. Until recently, the analog old style hard-wired corded phones had ~ 98.9% reliability. There was a resilient network of copper cables that transmitted voice calls outside the home and office. But today, we send and receive so much more- zoom, video games, banking, shopping, movies.  To deliver that bandwidth most of the  copper cable has been replaced with wireless transmission, fiber optic cable, and satellite service. Telcos sometimes use these too between their own trunk lines and switching offices.

That is all good- until it is not. In an emergency, say an earthquake or severe wind storm, the old phone system called POTS (plain old telephone service) delivered when electricity failed. Today,  the price we pay  for speedy bandwidth is occasional inconsistency due to the interdependence of phones and electrical service. It’s an issue recognized by the FCC and lawmakers. After the 2019 fires, a State Bill was introduced to make sure that wireless companies, Comcast, AT&T, et al. provide 72 hours of backup electrical service at their cell towers.


It’s not just emergencies. The California Office of Emergency Services reports that, on average, there are 15 outages and 255 hours of downtown a month. Most of these don’t create a public disturbance until they go on for extended periods, or in extreme cases, they immobilize calls to ‘911’.  

There appears to have been a cascade like effect during the incident you mention. The damaged cable was connected to a bigger line (called a trunk) and then caused it to fail. People at home tried to use their phones to get Internet service, say as a hotspot. People on the  Internet used their computers to make voice calls, say over Skype. We were all transmitting over a reduced bandwidth of fiber optics and cell towers until eventually there was ‘radio silence.’

Scraping By:

As you mention those who could still get Internet service turned to social media to find out what was going on. The local newspaper, The Ark reports, that a San Francisco  company called “Downdetector” (Parent company Ookla in Seattle, Wa.) was scraping these posts to tabulate the severity of the outage for Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T! It’s ironic that they were using the Internet to gather customer data!

During the phone outage others called into the local police stations or to 911. That began to overwhelm the emergency service lines and compound the problem. Marin has become sort of a poster child on social media for its inappropriate use of 911 calls that day (see image).  It’s not clear that your neighbor’s analog phone would have had greater priority reaching 911 once transmissions got overloaded.

On a personal level, one of the lessons I learned after the 2019 fires was that while many lost electricity for days, there was no PG&E outage just a few miles away in the City. In light of my transportation background, my advice is to  keep your car topped off with a full tank. Alternatively, keep  your electric car on alert with a full charge so you can also use it to power up your home! Use the car radio to listen for updates and when it sounds safe, seek higher ground. The key is figuring out what communities have working electricity. While the electronic tolling on the bridges should be free that day (!) there is real risk from traffic backups and traffic signal outages.