The right call?
Texting while driving is dangerous, but can the same be said for talking and listening on a cellphone? And what about hands-free?

By David Tanner, associate editor

Professional truck drivers are supportive of efforts to ban texting while driving for all drivers, and the dangers are obvious. But what about talking on a hand-held cellphone or hands-free device?

As some safety groups and policymakers attempt to outlaw all cellphone use for commercial operators, truckers have more allies than they might think.

Not long ago, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that drivers who text while behind the wheel are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash than non-texting drivers. It really nailed home the point that drivers need to have their eyes forward and engaged in their primary task of safe operation.

Regulators and policymakers quickly grew fond of that study – or at least the “23 times” part of it – and have cited it often to justify regulatory actions.

But many regulators and policymakers have wholeheartedly ignored other findings of the same study, especially one that shows talking on or listening to a cellphone to be no more dangerous than regular driving. And one they never cite is the finding that communicating on a hands-free device actually has a protective effect on drivers.

Now before drivers start thinking that they’re immune to the dangers of phone use and driving, it’s important to know the context – and the boundaries – that can help keep you and others around you safe.

For starters, the study’s author, Richard Hanowski, director of the Center for Truck and Bus Safety at Virginia Tech, has a background in human factors. He also has a Ph.D. in industrial and systems engineering and has 10 years’ experience in commercial driver-related issues.

The first thing he will tell you about the study is that it underscores the dangers of distracted driving, especially when it involves texting, emailing, typing, dialing, reaching for or otherwise messing with a hand-held communication device while behind the wheel.

“One of the key findings was that distraction was a bigger issue than people thought it was,” he said.

It’s no wonder that the federal government and the majority of states have sought to ban the practice of texting.

Next up is the method, which shows the numbers are not a fluke.

Hanowski pulled findings together from two separate studies – a smaller one and a larger one that validated the smaller one – to show that true hands-free use of a cellphone was not only neutral but actually had a protective effect on the commercial driver.

Both studies, paid for by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, involved in-cab video cameras that recorded drivers in their real-world working environment.

“Being able to identify what the driver was doing in the critical seconds before a crash happens is very difficult, especially when you’re looking at non-driving activities,” Hanowski said. “We can look at where the driver was looking, because we have video of where they were looking just at the wrong moment before a crash.”

The studies show not only driver behavior leading up to safety critical incidents, but also what drivers were doing during the safe miles.

Distracting definition
The first study recorded 3 million real-world miles by 200 truck drivers. Of the 21 crashes and 4,500 events recorded, 60 percent involved a driver focusing on something other than driving. An event could include swerving, heavy braking or lane departure.

But to simply say that a driver was “using a cellphone” before a safety critical incident was not enough for the researchers. They were able to break down the tasks involved and isolate safe versus unsafe tasks.

“It’s important to take a task-analysis approach and break down specifically what the driver is doing,” Hanowski said.

“For cellphones, we looked at: Were the drivers reaching for a phone, were they reaching for a Bluetooth, were they dialing, were they texting, were they holding a phone up to their ear to talk and listen, or were they talking and listening on a hands-free phone when they missed a cue or almost hit an obstacle?”

Texting took drivers’ eyes off the road for four or more seconds at a time and was quite dangerous. Hanowski explains the other findings.

“When you break it up in detail, talking and listening weren’t risk factors. Drivers, when they are talking and listening, they tend to look at the road, and they just weren’t getting involved in these safety events,” he said.

“When they were on hands-free phones, and when they were talking and listening on CBs, there was a protective effect. It’s actually a benefit to drivers. They’re actually safer, with less risk.”

The second study, which involved DriveCam data from 13,000 vehicles using similar task analysis, validated the first study across the board.

“That really underscores the idea that cellphone use just in and of itself isn’t precise enough,” said Hanowski. “If you’re not defining your terms right, you can mislead and potentially misinform policy if that’s the purpose of what the research happens to be. It’s just not precise enough.”

OOIDA promotes safe driving practices. The Association has used Hanowski’s findings in comments to the FMCSA on issues of distracted driving and cellphone restrictions.

“Education pertaining to the safe use of cell phones, combined with a more concentrated use of the existing arsenal of enforcement tools, should do far more to improve highway safety than the presently proposed restriction, which lacks any enforcement plan,” OOIDA stated in comments to FMCSA on the restriction of hand-held phones for CMV operators.

Eyes on the road
No matter what drivers think about the various regulatory actions to regulate cellphones, the primary task should always be to operate a vehicle safely, something Hanowski says cannot be stressed enough. He adds that talking on a phone should never be used to keep a fatigued driver on the road.

“Perhaps there are countermeasures that we say are not really distractions. Maybe they actually perk a driver up a bit to get them into an optimal performance while they’re on the road, but you don’t want a tired driver on the road that is also distracted,” he said.

“If you’re drowsy, and you’re falling asleep, you need to stop driving and take a nap. The only countermeasure for true drowsiness and fatigue is sleeping.”

Land Line asked Hanowski about a recent recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board to the FMCSA to ban all cellphone use by commercial drivers while behind the wheel.

Hanowski would not go on the record to specifically address the NTSB recommendation, but he did say that a federal notice of proposed rulemaking aimed at restricting cellphone use – one that would still allow hands-free operation – aligns with his study findings. LL