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Is talking on a cell phone while driving really all that bad?

The transportation secretary and National Transportation Safety Board are debating over whether talking on the phone in the car -- even hands-free -- is all that dangerous.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says he won't go along with the National Transportation Safety Board's recommendation that all states ban all use of cell phones while driving. The NTSB says phones, even hands-free models, are too risky, too distracting, could lead to accidents, and are just a bad idea. LaHood says he doesn't think hands-free is all that big a problem for the moment.

Personally, when I talk on the phone in my car (not often, but yes, sometimes), I try to mentally flip back through all of the research I've heard on the subject to try to determine how much of a risk I'm taking. Problem is, I can never recall what exactly the research says about this. There's a reason for that: the research is inconclusive. "Various studies place the relative risk anywhere between nothing -- no increased risk -- and about four times the increased risk," says Christopher Nowakowski, a human factors researcher at University of California, Berkeley, and an admitted occasional driver/caller.

Technology has improved to the point where studies on distracted driving can now take place in actual cars out on the actual road. That has led to results that are pretty different from what a simulator-based test might reveal. "I think that's where a lot of the NTSB and other people have tended to go a little bit wrong," says Nowakowksi. "They're looking at some very old studies which showed very large increases in risk, and the newer studies that are better, that are actually looking at how people drive in the real world, that are putting cameras and monitoring systems in the vehicles to watch how people drive, those are coming out with vastly lower relative risks."

It's also hard to determine a kind of baseline level of risk in driving when there are so many environments and circumstances in which one might be behind the wheel. "Well, if you're driving on rural freeway with light traffic, there are not many things that you need to take in and react to," Nowakowksi says. "But, if you're driving in downtown urban environment where there's traffic lights and pedestrians, and bicycles for example, you need to be able to take in all this information and process it and decide what's a hazard, what's a risk to you. And, in those situations, it's probably better not to be on the phone."

Researchers are trying to find ways for drivers of the future to have it both ways: connected to the outside world but not plowing a car into a tree. John D. Lee, an engineering professor at University of Wisconsin, says we need to make cars smarter. "Future vehicles will be able to detect when the driver is distracted and when there are cars that are dangerously close and hopefully that combination can be used for the car to intervene, alert, warn the driver and hopefully get the driver to pay attention to the road when it's actually critical."

How would a car be able to do that? "There's a variety of sensors that are becoming actually feasible to put into the car. Some sensors can track the driver's eyes for example and know when the driver is looking away from the road. Other sensors can do simple things, like track the position of the steering wheel, and through the pattern of steering movements, know when driver is attentive or even drowsy."

Lee rides his bike most places but says if you're afraid of being distracted, just put your phone in the trunk. If you really want to talk on it, pull over.

Also in this program, a new study says that four of the most-searched terms in 2011 had to do with people trying to reach Facebook. Not by typing in "Facebook.com" in the address field, mind you, but by searching for it.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.
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Now on the Google thing: I'm guilty. Google is my homepage, and when the browser window opens the cursor is in the search field rather than the address field, and I'm too blink'n lazy to bother moving the cursor when I know Google will find what I want. Sorry ... I'm helpless.

I have never adopted the practice of using a phone in the car. I don't feel that strongly about it, I simply don't have the habit, nor have seen a real need for it. But, I find it so incredibly amusing that so many people see a problem with the behavior when other people do it; but then go on to justify their own use with the thinnest of excuses. I’m beginning to think this is mainly an addiction problem. And while I'm on the subject: in the last couple of months I've seen two pedestrians almost run over because they where talking on the phone crossing a street. I think maybe talking is a task that requires our full atention; the human brain really can't muti-task (there is only one processor).

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