Driven to Distraction
Cell phones, reading, makeup, keep Portland drivers’ eyes off the road
BY PETER KORN
The Portland Tribune, Mar 19, 2009
L.E. BASKOW / TRIBUNE PHOTO
A driver digs into a burger after leaving a drive-thru while merging into traffic along Southeast Grand Avenue.
Like moths drawn irresistibly to flames, we just don’t seem able to hang up and drive.
Driving while talking on a cell phone is the distraction equivalent of driving drunk, we’ve been told. And still, more than one in two drivers admit to cell phone driving in the latest Foundation for Traffic Safety survey. The young apparently are worse: Nearly half of drivers 18 to 24 admit that they send text messages while driving.
Oregon’s Legislature is getting the message; it is considering a bill banning all but hands-free cell phone use while driving.
But cell phone driving is only part of the equation. People who wouldn’t think of getting in a car without buckling their seat belts will reach for the lipstick while they’re driving — over there, in the handbag on the back seat. They will read a book when traffic slows them down, or they’ll turn around and fiddle with children in car seats.
What are we, nuts?
No, just optimistic, says Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa., and author of “The Paradox of Choice.”
What allows us to ignore evidence and continue dangerous behavior, Schwartz says, is what the people who study these things call an “optimistic bias.” That’s the part of our brain that says the evidence doesn’t really apply to us, because we’re better, or more prepared or more careful, than everyone else.
Southwest Portland resident Anne, who requested that her last name not be used for reasons that are about to become obvious, must be really optimistic. She admits she applies her eyeliner every morning while commuting east on the Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway. But, Anne says, “I only take advantage of the red lights.”
“I can’t imagine putting it on in motion. I would probably poke an eye out and get into a multi-car pileup if I did it while in motion,” Anne says.
As for her cell phone, Anne says she never makes calls while driving. But if someone calls her, she has been known to answer.
“When the phone rings, it’s kind of a Pavlovian reaction,” she says.
Besides, compared to other people she knows, Anne says her driving behavior is hardly risky. Anne points to a friend, an ex-lobbyist, who would read draft legislation from his lap every day while driving south to Salem.
In fact, Anne says, she’s got a sort of fail-safe in her car that ensures she’ll put her makeup down once the light turns green — she drives a stick shift.
“I don’t like having my hands tied up with anything else,” she explains. And the manual transmission also provides her a handy excuse for cutting off cell phone conversations, Anne says.
“ ‘I’ve got to go. Got to shift now,’ ” Anne tells her friends.
TRIBUNE PHOTOS: L.E. BASKOW • A driver catches up on paperwork while moving along the Sunset Highway during the morning rush hour. Other drivers drink, talk on cell phones, eat, text message and apply makeup while driving.
‘I’m in control’
Optimists, everyone one of us. Schwartz reports that 86 percent of people in one survey think they are better than the average driver.
The divorce rate is close to 50 percent, Schwartz says, but just about 100 percent of married couples say they are less likely than the average couple to get divorced.
“Everybody thinks they’re better than average at everything,” Schwartz says. “The miracle to me is you can get popular support around banning cell phones, since people think (cell-phone driving) won’t affect them.”
A handful of states banned the use of handheld cell phones while driving. Oregon’s Legislature is expected to decide in the next few weeks if it wants to follow suit by passing House Bill 2377, legislation sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Tomei, a Milwaukie Democrat, or one of two similar bills.
Tomei says that at her town hall meetings, a number of constituents asked her to do something about drivers who use cell phones. One woman, she says, told her that while walking in Milwaukie, 13 of 16 drivers who passed her were talking on cell phones.
Cell phones have a number of specific attractions, experts say. They allow us to stay socially connected, and in an increasingly impersonal world, that has appeal. In an increasingly taxing world, they allow us to multi-task, taking care of business during what seems to be wasted time alone in the car.
People’s willingness to drive while impaired, in any form and from any source, is based on a lack of vivid experience telling them it is dangerous, Schwartz says.
Marie Helweg-Larsen, chairwoman of the department of psychology at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., says it takes a vivid experience to overcome an optimistic bias, especially one that continually gets reinforced.
“Every time you talk on a cell phone and don’t get in an accident, it’s evidence in the column saying it can’t be that dangerous,” Helweg-Larsen says.
The only thing that will change that perception is getting in an accident while talking on the phone, Helweg-Larsen says. Even then, she says, the old way of thinking will eventually return. That’s because worrying about getting in a car crash while talking on the phone is not what psychologists call “adaptive behavior.”
“It’s just not practical, psychologically, to worry every time you get in the car. It doesn’t work that well. You cannot be on heightened alert every time you get in the car,” says Helweg-Larsen, who admits she, too, uses her cell phone while driving.
Schwartz — who, by the way, admits he uses his cell phone while driving (so much for knowledge overcoming irrational behavior), and further admits he refuses to talk to his adult children if they tell him they are calling from their cars (indicating, possibly, that an optimistic bias doesn’t extend to one’s kids) — says a sense of control is part of the psychology, too. And Americans driving cars are all about control.
Many Americans reacted to the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Schwartz says, by believing it was suddenly unsafe to fly.
Schwartz says hordes of people who had long-distance vacations planned opted out of planes and into their cars, driving cross-country in some cases, and increasing the chances they would die in an accident. In fact, a Cornell University study estimates there were 2,170 additional highway deaths in the months after 9/11 due to people driving rather than flying — almost as many as died in the terrorist attacks. But those extra people who died in car accidents died feeling in control.
“It’s that (thought), ‘I’m in control when I’m driving, if there’s a terrorist on the plane, what can I do?’ ” Schwartz says.
Using common sense
Ralph Keyes, the author of “Chancing It,” has spent years interviewing people who live risky lives to determine how they make choices. Keyes says mountain climbers and high-wire aerialists are often afraid of spiders, or, even more frequently, Keyes says, of getting married.
Portland resident Margot Monti had no problem with getting married. But she won’t talk on her phone while driving. Nor will she put on makeup or read a book while driving.
“I tried it once when I first got a cell phone and it freaked me out,” Monti says. “I realized I was not focusing on the road, and it was not worth it.”
It would be easy to label Monti as someone who doesn’t take risks, except for the fact that she’s a veterinary technician at the Oregon Zoo, working with tigers, elephants and condors, sometimes in situations she calls “potentially dangerous.”
Monti perceives cell phone driving as much more dangerous than anything she does at work. “I have a lot of common sense and I make sure the people I work with are also using their common sense,” she says. “And I don’t think talking on a cell phone while driving is using one’s common sense.”
Josh Weller, a research scientist for Eugene’s Decision Research Institute, has been interviewing 16- to 24-year-olds about distracted driving. His analysis of the situation: “You’re going to see some really big spikes in accident rates in the next five years, due to distracted driving.”
Younger drivers, Weller says, have plenty of rationalizations justifying cell phone driving and texting. Some say they only do it when they are on familiar neighborhood streets. Others say only when they are on a highway, where they don’t have to turn.
“They think it’s a personal choice,” Weller says. “They’ve actually said, ‘You could choose to be distracted by it or ignore (the phone).’ It’s somewhat scary when you hear these things.”
Younger drivers aren’t likely to put down their phones. “They’re very attuned to their cell phones and very connected to their social networks and being on the pulse of everything,” Weller says. “It’s almost as if they think driving can get in the way of their conversations.”
COPS SEE IT ALL - READERS, TALKERS, STRADDLERS
Lt. Gregg Hastings of the Oregon State Police knows he hasn’t seen everything.
“I haven’t had a breastfeeder yet,” says Hastings, aware that some troopers have stopped cars and warned women about the dangers of breastfeeding while driving.
But Hastings says he and other law enforcement officers have seen plenty of dangerously distracted drivers. There’s data on the risk of cell phone driving, which is why the Legislature is considering a law that would ban cell phone, as opposed to, say, reading while driving.
In fact, reading while driving is more common than most people think, Hastings says. Laptops, too.
Hastings, who drives an unmarked car, knows that without a law specifically banning cell phone use by drivers, he can’t issue a citation to drivers.
“Sometimes I’ll get their attention and roll my window down so they can see I’m an officer, and I’ll gesture, ‘Put your book down or put your makeup down,’ ” Hastings says.
Even Hastings has his limits. He says a few years ago he was on night shift, driving toward Lake Oswego on Highway 43, when he pulled up behind a Volkswagen minibus at a red light. The light turned green but the VW didn’t pull forward. He shined his headlight through the rear window and saw two teenagers sitting in an unusual position — the passenger facing and straddling the driver, on his lap.
Which technically isn’t a violation, Hastings says. He stopped the VW anyway and had the occupants, um, untangle.
“This one was so careless, I was not going to wait for something worse to happen,” he says about the stop.
But was either one of the teens on a cell phone?
“No, it was a personal interaction,” Hastings says.
Hastings says he can usually spot a driver who has an animal on his lap by the extra wide turns they make at intersections.
“They have one hand on the dog and one hand on the steering wheel, so they can’t make tight turns like they’re supposed to,” Hastings says.
Cell phone drivers, he adds, usually drive too fast or roll through stop signs. Just last week, Hastings says, he was stopped at a crosswalk in Gresham when a pickup coming much too fast squealed its brakes and stopped two inches from the car in front of it.
“I looked over and the driver was just getting ready to light up a small marijuana pipe,” Hastings says. “I was looking over at (the driver) and he and the passenger were laughing because they almost got in a wreck. He looked over at me and quickly put it down.”
Ah, but we all know how reaction times can be slowed by certain illegal behaviors. Hastings cited the passenger for possession of an illegal substance.
“Personally, I’d like to see a law (that says) don’t drive while distracted, because I’ve seen people with both hands eating a fast food hamburger and driving with their knees,” says Sgt. Robert Voepel with the Portland Police Bureau’s traffic division.
Voepel recalls a crash he saw a few years ago on Southwest Vermont Avenue that illustrates his point. A car rammed into a school bus that was waiting to make a turn. At the scene, he saw women’s makeup plastered across the dashboard. At the hospital, the driver admitted that she didn’t even see the bus.
“She nearly killed herself because she was busy putting on her makeup on the way to work,” Voepel says. “I don’t know how you can’t see a yellow school bus.”
Brenda Liles knows how, and she’s thankful her daughter is alive. Liles works for the Oregon State Police, and was among the first on the scene the day her daughter’s boyfriend said he wanted to break up. Unfortunately, this occurred while the daughter was driving her car on Interstate 5 south of Portland.
Liles’ daughter was driving and crying and communicating with her boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend, via cell phone. She hit a patch of gravel at the side of the road, rolled her car, and landed upside down after sliding across a series of traffic lanes. If not for a railing that held, Liles says, her daughter’s car would have plunged off a bridge, and her whiplash, bruises and cuts would have been the least of her worries.
Liles rushed to her injured, bleeding daughter who was being carried away to an ambulance, an image likely to stay with Liles all her life, as will her daughter’s words.
“She was lying on the stretcher, “Liles recalls, “sobbing hysterically, (saying) ‘I’m sorry, mom, I’m sorry. I was texting.’ ”
— Peter Korn
IT'S NOT THE HANDS; IT'S THE TALKING
Dan Reisberg, a Reed College professor who specializes in cognitive psychology, sent a cautionary letter recently to state Rep. Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie, sponsor of legislation that would make talking on a cell phone while driving a primary offense. That means police could stop and ticket drivers seen talking while driving, without having to stop them first for some other offense.
Reisberg has studied the dangers of distracted driving and he thinks cell phone driving should be outlawed. But he doesn’t believe Tomei’s bill, which allows hands-free cell phones, goes far enough.
Reisberg points to studies that show it’s not the act of holding the cell phone that distracts drivers, it’s the conversations themselves.
A normal conversation might not even be too distracting, Reisberg says. But when talk becomes emotional, or heated or occurs at the wrong moment, the distraction level shoots up.
A conversation with someone sitting next to you while you drive could be similarly distracting, but it isn’t, according to Reisberg and other experts. Their studies show that passengers are looking at the same traffic as drivers, and they adjust what they say to the driving circumstances, without even being aware they are doing so. When drivers are sliding in to freeway traffic, for instance, most passengers stop talking.
“They also keep an eye on you,” Reisberg says. “If you’re tense, they slow down (their talking).”
But the person you’re talking to on a cell phone has no idea what’s going on while you drive. And that, Reisberg says, is dangerous.
For her part, Tomei says she doesn’t think a bill outlawing all cell phone use by drivers, including hands-free, would have a chance of passing the Legislature.
Who would object? “Everybody,” Tomei says.
– Peter Korn