Corona Virus, Smartphone Transmit ?

Will touching an infected user’s smartphone help spread the Corona Virus?

Photo serves as metaphor: a doll with say eyes has a a facemask partially covering her visage. This raises a question about the hygiene and safety of using the touchscreen on our phones.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: With the Covic-19 virus spreading, should I be worried if someone shares a smartphone with me? I was looking at some pictures my friends had on their phones,  and I had to touch their screens to scroll. Meanwhile, it seems like my kids are always passing their phones back and forth to look at YouTube.  And, how about those TV screens on airplanes?  Lance, San Francisco.

Dear Lance:  I am a doctor of social science, not a medical doctor, so I cannot fully give you the advice you seek. But, on the social science side of things, some years ago Stephen King wrote a thriller called ‘Cell.’ Phones were at the heart of the pandemic. It was the signal, not germs, that spread the illness.

But, what is spreading COVIC-19? The Center for Disease Control (CDC) site says it might spread by touching the surface of an object that has the virus on it and then touching your own mouth, nose, or eyes….but they don’t think that’s the main way. Still, it’s good practice to be careful if you have a shared phone that passes among people you do not know well. This is not uncommon among groups of itinerants, the homeless, and poor. They are more likely to share a common phone and might be at a higher health risk to begin with.

Assuming you have a personal phone, you will likely touch it up to 2000 times a day. Good hygiene, in any season, says keep your phone out of the bathroom. Also, make it a regular habit to wipe down the screen with a soft cloth (not soap and water). A Web-MD story says ultra-violet light might be a way to eliminate airborne flu viruses, but other experts, like a clinical professor of pathology, says these effects are superficial.

Time-tested sage advice from the CDC is to routinely wash your hands with a 60% + alcohol based cleaner, or with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

That said, transmission is not only about germs.  This gets us closer to social science and to the pandemonium Stephen King predicted. Speed of information and fragmented, half-truths can also broadcast fear and panic. As a CNBC site points out (2/22/20) only 34 people have coronavirus in the US but the common flu infected an estimated 35.5 million people here last year. As of 3/2/20 there were ~ 100 confirmed cases. The news seldom plays up these numbers, so smartphones play a big role in the transmission of rumor and fear. And the public, schooled on the media of disaster and gloom, feed on it.

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.

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.