Driving While Phoning

Keith Humphreys makes a point that can’t be stressed enough:

[Daniel] Simons’ work shows that drivers believe that the risks of driving while telephoning are physical (i.e., the risk from a hand held phone is the loss of one hand on the wheel) when in fact they are cognitive and social. Poor audio quality makes drivers strain to hear cell phone calls when they should be devoting their attentional resources to the road. Passenger behavior is another key factor. When a driver stops talking to execute a maneuver, passengers instinctively pause their own conversation and look out the window, providing an extra set of eyes and the safety that goes with it. But someone calling on a cell phone thinks the call has been dropped and says “Hello, hello are you still there?”, creating an attentional demand at a particularly dangerous moment.

Most people don’t understand this, thinking that they’re just as safe yapping on their cell phone as they would be talking to a passenger.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Trumwill says:

    Worth pointing out is that while cell-driving is a hazard during non-repetitive driving, it may actually increase performance when the driver is at risk of “zoning out”.

    I mention this because it corresponds with my experience. Back before it was established as a no-no, I talked on the cell phone regularly on the road. I found that when I was navigating city streets and/or going somewhere I’d never been before (and therefore not on the mental “auto-pilot”) I am when I am headed home from work, talking on a cell phone is distracting. On the other hand, when on an open Interstate, there really seemed to be no harm done. There are times when I’ve been tired and wished that I had someone to talk to because the mental stimulation would have improved my overall alertness.

    I notice the same thing with audiobooks. I frequently turn them off as soon as I get off the Interstate and need to find something, I’ll just turn the audiobook off. I’m not sure what the comparative dangers of audiobook-listening are to cell phone talking, but it has been demonstrated that listening to sports is dangerous.

    Of course, so is eating in the car. And to a lesser extent, smoking in it. And driving tired.

    Meanwhile, despite all the new dangers (driving while celling, driving while texting), your chances of actually getting into an accident have not appreciably raised in recent years.

  2. James Joyner says:


    Twenty years ago–I don’t know if it’s still true today–Germany penalized “driving while tired” equally with “driving while intoxicated,” recognizing that there was no functional difference.

    But, yes, there are all manner of ways to drive distracted.

  3. John Burgess says:

    I think the top two distractions have to be arguing with an S/O and trying to manage a shrieking child. Worse, perhaps, if the shrieks are the result of injury or illness.