Drivers Hold Phones…Why?

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.

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