Wednesday, January 14, 2009

DWUI-CP: Driving While Under the Influence of a Cell Phone

I was on Thom Hartmann's radio program yesterday, discussing the use of cell phones while driving. Thom's position was that regulating cell phone usage in cars was an imposition and probably unenforceable anyway. I suggested that like drunk driving, driving while cell-phoning impaired responses and may result in hazardous driving. Here is an edited clip of the transcript:

Hartmann: The Safety Council... now they want to tell you that when you are driving your car you cannot use a hands-free cell phone. You know the little Bluetooth things that most cars have where you've got the phone in your pocket and your car answers the phone and you're just talking at the windshield wipers or the dashboard. You don't even have to take your phone out of your pocket. Hands-free phones. And they're saying we should ban this. It turns out 2600 deaths, 12000 serious injuries per year, this is 6% of vehicel crashes, are attributed to people using phones. Now that's not hands-free phones, that's just phones. But included in that some small percentage of people using hands-free phones and they say "Let's make that illegal."

I say enough of the conservatives telling us what we can do or not do anywhere on earth. Or maybe we should just ban talking in the car, because their argument is that...its not just what you're doing with your hands, its that your head is in the conversation. OK, so lets ban talking to people in the car. In fact, lets even take it a step beyond that. Lets make it required that people have duct tape in their car and that when they get in and sit down not only do you have to fasten your seat belt but you also have to tear off a three inch strip of duct tape and put it over your mouth. Because how are you going to know. I mean, if a police officer's driving by and they see somebody talking, they see their mouth moving, how do they know that that person is not talking to the person next to them or is not talking on a hands-free phone?
There are researchers who have shown that using a low-fidelity instrument like a cell phone as compared to a high fidelity radio or even talking to a person in a car takes more brain processing power. Its what McLuhan called a cool medium and you actually develop a form of tunnel vision while you're doing that.

Right, but if it was Bluetooth and it was running through the speakers in your car that would not be the case, would it?

Its still low fidelity. The signal is coming from the cell carrier, not from the FM radio station.

Oh, so its the bandwidth. Now that's interesting. Now let me extend the logic on this. You're saying that the bandwidth is narrow because there's not such a broad spectrum of frequency the brain has to focus on it more intently. You know AM radio has a narrower bandwidth than FM radio. Should we ban AM radio?
Well, I guess you have to find the degree of involvement.

There's some critical threshhold there. That's interesting, Bob! I tell you, I've got the smartest listeners in the world! I thought I was bringing some science to the table here and Bob trumps me! Well done Bob!

Its not every day that I can trump Thom Hartmann! And while I did get the McLuhan reference in, I'm sorry I wasn't able to work in Media Ecology or my blog site as well.

I think the fact that using the cell phone can be demonstrated to affect perception is an excellent example of McLuhan's "Cool Medium" terminology. Like connect-the-dot drawings as compared to photographs, cartoons as compared to paintings or traditional television as compared to cinema, a cool medium requires that we "fill in the blanks."

We experience a voice we hear over the phone as the same as normal conversation because our brains are filling in the gaps. Its only when we hear a recording of a phone conversation that we become aware of the low fidelity. That the process of talking on a cell phone can result in tunnel vision is truly interesting.

So thank you Thom for having me on and for recognizing how smart McLuhan was!

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