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Cell Phone Usage While Driving

From time to time during an accident investigation, the issue of cell phone use arises. Because the cell phone is commonplace in vehicles, it has become the topic of accident reconstruction training, legislation in many states and municipalities, and the conversation of many frustrated drivers who get slighted by the unconscious acts of some “cell phone-using drivers,” as opposed to “drivers using cell phones.”

A great deal of those who violate basic rules of the road subconsciously are not primarily driving and using a cell phone. You guessed it: they are primarily using a cell phone, and secondarily driving a 4,000-pound piece of metal that has the potential to kill at virtually any speed given the right set of conditions.

I am an emergency vehicle operation driving instructor with my police department. I began making some observations in March 2003 during a month of high-speed, stress-induced and pursuit-type driving.

We train our officers to transmit only while driving in a straight line. Always keep your eyes moving/scanning your surroundings to overcome the potential of tunnel vision from setting in. Tunnel vision doesn’t just mean that you begin losing peripheral vision, but it also includes the fixation on an object directly in front of you. This could be as simple as the roadway most directly in front of your vehicle. Could that tunnel distance be as close as 50 feet or less in front of your vehicle?

It would appear that accident results show it could be. Using a phone can create its own version of tunnel vision— a “mental tunnel vision” if you will—that can overtake your primary function of driving a vehicle. Think of it: drivers are striking barriers directly in front of them.

I can’t tell you how many times during our pursuit driving that the officers overshot turns or went off road because they were baited into communicating at inopportune times during strenuous driving conditions. The communication function overrode the driving function.

I was able to correct these mistakes by reminding the drivers to look through the curve, scan well ahead of the vehicle, and keep their eyes moving. Of course, in pursuit driving, we talk about combat breathing and wiggling your toes among other things to keep the stress down. There’s no need for that extreme in simple cell phone use, but as you will see, some of these principles do apply.

Answer the question of why a driver can carry on a conversation with a passenger in his own vehicle and consciously make appropriate good decisions during his trip. I began watching people talking to each other in any and all settings, including inside a vehicle driving.

Watch them for yourself, and notice how they look around, look over at the person with whom they are talking, look away, look in their mirror, look back at the person, and so on. The driver’s head and eyes move constantly. Outside of a car, it is rare for two people to start talking to each other while staring into each others’ eyes, never looking away, or not being distracted by any external stimuli until their conversation is over.

Let’s get back to the big question of how the “cell phone spell” seems to come over some drivers and cause them to drive subconsciously. In fact, cell phones are not the real problem. The real underlying problem has to do with phones period and how we are conditioned to use them. Again, I began watching people. People are creatures of habit and conditioning. The reality of it all is that a phone is a phone no matter what kind it is. People look down in front of them or straight ahead as they listen and respond.

Many times you will notice that people will actually freeze for a second or two as they begin talking or listening. It’s natural conditioning. Not bad in and of itself when you’re sitting in an office chair or standing in your kitchen; it’s just natural conditioning. After all, when we are on the phone we aren’t on a sight-seeing venture. The phone is thought of as an audio device similar to a radio, not a visual instrument or tool.

The majority of the time, most people use the telephone in a safe setting with little danger. Because people are creatures of habit, we carry conditionings from one set of circumstances to another similar set of circumstances. Again, to people, a phone is a phone is a phone. The furthest thing in the back of most drivers’ minds is that their vehicle would ever hurt anybody. But close to the front of cell phone drivers’ minds is that they know how to use a phone. What they don’t see is the potential danger in mixing the two otherwise innocuous ingredients that can create a mental tunnel vision.

Also concerning phone conditioning is that nobody likes to be interrupted when they are talking to somebody. They learn to shut out external noise and stimuli during their conversation. So when a vehicle driver makes the phone call primary and his driving secondary, driving stimuli can get somewhat shut out as a form of distraction or interruption to the phone call.

The way to avoid this mental tunnel vision is to scan. Keeping your eyes and head moving is imperative to safe driving under these circumstances. It forces you to keep driving as your primary function. Understand I didn’t say eyes or head, I said eyes and head. Remember that most people are conditioned over a lifetime to pick up a telephone and look straight ahead as they talk, without much head movement or eye movement.

Drinking alcohol and driving causes divided attention, slowing, and clouding our decision-making process. Multi-tasking on your home computer causes the machine operation to slow down. Much the same is cell phone use in an automobile. In all three situations, some task is slowing the primary process from being accomplished at 100%. Cell phones can be used safely in automobiles as long as proper precautions are taken.

The safe use of cell phones in vehicles has nothing to do with the conversation itself; it has everything to do with overcoming previous conditioned behavior of phone use. As a patrol officer, I have had many occasions to be driving, typing and talking on the radio at the same time.

As much as I shouldn’t say it, I’ve had the occasion to do all that and be on the cell phone at the same time once or twice. I have to consciously remind myself to “keep it moving.” I’ve had a little more personal incentive to find the cause of this dilemma because I see the effects of it. I’m confident that keeping my eyes and head moving while I’m using a cell phone and driving a vehicle has helped me and others in my path time and again.

Officer Greg Edgcombe is an EVOC instructor with the Grand Rapids, MI Police. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2006

Rating : 7.0

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