Hands-Free Enforcement?

Delivery driver says the phone is a lifeline …hands-free, seriously?

A picture of traffic where tag lines suggest people in the cars are talking on the phone, texting, and engaging in other distracting behaviors.
source: fdot.gov

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I saw your last post about using hands-free phones. For the last few years I have been doing food delivery and having a phone in the car is a necessity.  I keep it on my lap or next to me. This new law is going to cause me a lot of hardship and slow me down. They can’t enforce it anyway so what’s the big deal? R.D., Boston

Dear R.D.,

Food delivery must be taxing, and hopefully you will not be distracted by either your Big Gulp or  your smartphone!  I honestly think that our growing demand for home delivery plus the desire to be continuously connected shortens the time until autonomous vehicles. 

To Enforce or Not…

But, to answer your question, an officer could pull you over if they saw you on the phone, say they looked down from an overpass, or  pulled along-side you at a stop. For background, see the Florida image. But I agree: officers are going to be cautious about enforcement. The background is Whren v. United States (1996). The lesson: don’t drive erratically and get pulled over.

I used to think phones were not necessary in cars but I cede that opinion. Most of us have lost our way-finding skills, and traffic apps add value. They help us select the best route, anticipate bottlenecks and slowdowns, and provide voice-overs to navigate your crazy round-abouts in Boston.

Knoweth thy phone commands…

Drivers with newer cars and trucks will stream their phone through the car’s audio system. But here are some additional tips for those with older cars and phones.

Get acquainted with the voice commands on your phone. You may be able to place a call, or answer one, by using voice commands like Siri or Alexa.  It is a misnomer to think that these calls are distraction free, but they will, at least, help keep your eyes on the road.

Second, make sure the screen-lock is set functionally. Then you won’t have to touch the phone to wake-up it up, or worse, key in the password. The screen-lock settings are generally found under ‘general/display/auto-lock.’

And, Knoweth Not!

Finally, newer phone operating systems have a feature that detect motion in your vehicle and are supposed to automatically divert an incoming call to voicemail.  On the Iphone this feature is buried under accessibility. Full disclaimer: Dear Smartphone has not been able to set up this feature successfully and struggles to turn it off for good.

Hands-Free Necessary?

Hands-free an option for older phone and older car?

At 60 MPH it takes a car 369 feet to stop. This is longer than a football field. The graph shows stopping distances at lower speeds too.
The End Zone for Smartphones… Perception, Reaction and Stopping.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I saw signs on the highway (in Mass) saying phones must now be hands-free. Is this really necessary or is this just another dumb law? I have an older phone and an older car and I don’t see the need for this myself. Omar, Georgetown

Dear Omar: Think about it this way: if you have surgery you hope that the doctors are not talking on cellular phones or reading the newspaper when they operate. They will be paying full attention to what they are doing. The National Safety Council reminds us that driving requires all of your attention and uses all of your senses. In both cases, there is a life at stake, your own. 

That said, so many drivers use smartphones while they drive. The AAA Traffic Safety Culture Index for 2018 found that about 52 percent of motorists had recently talked on a handheld cellphone, 41 percent had read a message and 32 percent had typed or sent a message. 

The Three Sins of Sims:

There are three ways that the smartphone can distract you in the car. The first is obvious: Manual distraction occurs when you need to reach for the phone, fumble with it, or press in numbers. Many states, like yours, have bans. Then there is visual distraction, like taking your eyes off the road so that you can read a text or type in a number. It goes hand-in-hand (pun intended) with manual distraction. Finally, there is cognitive distraction, which most drivers seem to attribute to the other drivers on the road, not to themselves.

Distraction 101

According to the NHTSA, phone conversations of any type increase reaction time and increase variations in speed, lane deviations, and steering wheel control.

When conversing on a mobile device, either hand held or hands free, drivers increase their risk of a crash two to four times. 

Drivers talking on hands-free cell phones miss visual cues critical to safety and navigation. Their divided attention leads them to miss exists, go through red lights and stop signs and ignore important navigational signage.

And a twist of the Wrist…

To be compliant with the new law, you will probably need to mount the phone on or near the dashboard, assuming there is no audio-connection.  Since you said you had an older phone and an older car, I’d be concerned that the phone may go-to-sleep while you drive and you might then need to wake it by typing in a password code. That would definitely take your hands off the wheel, your eyes off the road, and ultimately your attention too. It violates the intention of this new law. 


Fake News and Smartphones

A prankster creates Fake Road Traffic with a set of Smartphones…

A quirky picture of a red kids wagon that is as big as a car and has a motor.
A Street Ready Wagon found on Ebay built by John Davis of Cornelius, OR.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I saw on social media that you can use your phone to create a fake news traffic jam? I live in a neighborhood that gets a lot of traffic and I could use my phone to divert it. What do you think? Hani, Cambridge.

Dear Hani,

Let me start my saying that I don’t know how to reverse engineer it, but your phone is always used to monitor traffic. Most people don’t know this, but services like StreetLight data collect location data from your phone. Then they aggregate it and sell it to cities and towns that need to report traffic patterns. 

You can take steps to minimize what your phone sends by turning off GPS and Bluetooth. Most importantly, look through your apps and turn off permissions for location-data. You will be surprised how many apps are sending location data: apps  for cooking, meditation, shopping, etc.

Maps Need Data- You Need Maps

That said, you must allow location data when you use your phone for navigation, say when you open Google Maps or Waze. 

The incident you are referring to on social media was one I did not want to draw attention to for fear that it would spread through more channels. But, since you asked here is a brief summary. I will not add more fuel by gracing it with a picture!

Little Red Wagons

A performance and installation artist in Germany took a red wagon (think Radio Flyer) and filled it with 99 smart phones. Each one had the GPS activated so when he pulled the wagon on a side street  the color coded traffic map ‘summed’ 99 pings and registered “red” for traffic congestion. 

Google quickly issued a response (Yes!). It begins, “whether via car or cart or camel, we love seeing creative uses of Google Maps as it helps us make maps work better over time.”  They add that they will be improving the algorithm to detect wagons versus cars.

Circle the Wagons too..

There are a few ways to look at this fake news story. First, kudos to Google for being polite and responsive to the wagonneer. Next, get on the wagon with your GPS turned off…or perhaps, GPS turned on, mindfully.


*9to5Google is not an official Google newsletter. It is a blog written about Google and other technology. This can be confusing (almost fake news!)