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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Autos

Keep conversation casual

It’s always been common for drivers to have conversations with passengers, but nowadays, phone conversations are also prevalent.  Beyond that, many drivers can’t resist the lure of convenient text message communication.

The latter is forbidden by law in just about every jurisdiction nationwide.  But sadly, as a local grieving family of a young man who lost his life near Colfax from a crash occurring from texting while driving will attest, it still goes on with disastrous outcomes.

Texting seems to be the pinnacle of all distractions, as it requires participants to completely remove their eyesight from the roadway repeatedly for three to four second intervals.  As simple arithmetic dictates, that means texting drivers are travelling 300 to 400 feet during those “blind” intervals at 70 miles per hour.  Plenty of unexpected things can take place during those attention lapses, including a drift into the oncoming lane.

Even at arterial speeds of 35 mph, three to four seconds of visual neglect allows a couple hundred feet of vehicle travel in areas that are even more likely than the highway to produce sudden appearance of obstacles such as animals, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Although texting is universally accepted as a bad practice while driving (even by those who do it), many self-appointed multi-tasking experts believe that cell phone conversations are innocuous.  That’s partly because there has been a distinction drawn between “hands-free” and “hand-held” phone use, and the hands-free variety is tolerated.  That’s always puzzled me, as it’s not absolutely crucial to have both hands on the steering wheel at all times, and it seems like that’s the only shortcoming of a hand-held call when compared to a hands-free one.

I once felt that conversations were a harmless task to add to driving, early in the cell phone era, as I drove to my daughter’s soccer game.  What I found then, however, was that the relative seriousness of the call dictated the driving distraction it generated.  That call involved details of a major business decision, and by the time I arrived at the game’s parking lot, I couldn’t really recall the route I’d taken, let alone recount the various intersections and traffic control I’d just navigated.  I’d evidently driven in a somewhat unconscious state due to the concentration level that my call required.

The point is, to me, that whether hand-held or hands-free, it is the conversation itself that can be distracting, it’s severity dependant on the relative casual versus intense nature of the call.  The only real difference between hand-held and hands-free calls is that in one, you have your hand to your ear.  It seems that by that standard, the legal allowance of hands-free calls penalizes the hand-held users simply for having one’s hand at their ear.  So, should a hands-free Bluetooth user be penalized for scratching their ear?

Obviously, neither hands-free calls nor conversations within vehicles to passengers can be restricted or policed by law enforcement. That’s why it’s up to drivers to self police their conversational behavior while at the wheel.

A flight instructor once told me that he was regularly able to supply enough radio “chatter” to student pilots that they “crashed” their simulators during landing.  The distraction of responding to the communication took too much of their attention away from crucial thought needed to properly activate various controls during landing procedures.

So, for any form of conversation (hand-held, Bluetooth, in-car), I think it’s best to pull over to a safe spot to have it if it’s serious.  Business decisions, relationship details (dating, breakups), or financial affairs, for example, just might steal too much attention.

Have you ever tried to follow a television program while talking on the phone?  It’s difficult, if not impossible.  The National Safety Council speaks of cognitive distraction, whereas both driving and talking on a cell phone require a lot of thought.  When doing both, your brain can’t do either very well.

You can certainly talk some while safely driving, but keep your conversations casual and delay serious ones until driving distraction is not an issue.  In unfamiliar or dense traffic situations, it is probably best to just shut up and drive.

Readers may contact Bill Love via email at precisiondriving@spokesman.com.