Is the NTSB right? Ban cell phone use while driving?

Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board in the U.S. recommended that states enact laws to prohibit using a cell phone while driving. Reactions varied from support to complaints about the “nanny state.” Rather than jumping in with an opinion, I thought it might be useful to find some facts.

First, cell phone use is pervasive these days. People talk on their cell phones while grocery shopping, in the restroom, and, of course, in the car. (Commercial air flights are the one last refuge from cell phone usage, and I hope that ban remains in place–if only because I don’t need to hear a neighbor’s conversation at a voice trying to overcome the engine noise!)

With cell phones being so prevalent, there have been a number of studies examining how use of a cell phone interferes with driving. Studies have shown that using a cell phone can be as bad as driving drunk (regardless of whether the phone is hands-free or not), and that using a cell phone increases reaction times.

Still, despite the overwhelming evidence, a lot of us lawyers (and non-lawyers) use cell phones while driving. Why is this?

One possibility may be that we simply think we’re immune to the risks. Most of us prefer to think of ourselves as good drivers. In addition, we have “gotten away with it” for so long that we are comfortable with the idea.

Unfortunately, our thought process is flawed. The simple truth is that our brains, which have evolved from the days when we were wandering the grasslands in Africa, are not designed to multi-task. Multi-tasking brains were not well suited to the needs of primitive men and women. Brains that could deal with the basic needs of life (food, shelter, reproduction) are the ones that survived the test of time. These ideas are not something I’ve simply made up—they come from the book Brain Rules, by Dr. John Medina. On his web site, Dr. Medina gives a short explanation of what the brain pays attention to.

This simple video illustrates how the brain is unable to multitask:

Think about how well you did on the test in that video the next time you are inclined to use your cell phone while driving.

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