The U.S. Dept. of Transportation will have held its much-anticipated Distracted Driving Summit by the time this issue of Fleet Owner is in print. The Summit brings together senior transportation officials, elected officials, safety advocates and others to examine a range of issues related to distracted driving, including the relationship between using cell phones and various other onboard devices, such as navigation systems, on accident rates. New regulations and/or legislation are likely to follow.

If recent public polls are correct, there is “overwhelming” support for laws restricting cell phone use while driving, and regulators and legislators are in the mood to get tough. According to an August 2009 survey conducted by Harris Interactive for Nationwide Insurance, for example, eight in ten Americans surveyed said they would support legislation restricting cell phone use while driving.

As the issue heats up, there is sure to be a call for “sound science,” upon which to base any regulations, and that is where things could get lively. While it seems as though hands-free cell phone usage would be much safer, that is not the case at all, at least according to some experts such as Dr. Shlomo Breznitz, president and founder of CogniFit, a company devoted to helping people improve the basic cognitive skills required for human activities such as driving.

“We talk a lot about multi-tasking,” Breznitz says, “but people don't really do that. Instead, we just switch very rapidly between tasks without losing our place. Problems occur when our brain is presented with a conflict for our attention. For example, if you are using your visual ‘channel’ to drive a vehicle and your cell phone suddenly rings, there is competition between the auditory and visual channels, and the auditory always wins.”

This ears-beat-eyes phenomenon occurs because auditory information is always sequential; that is the only way we can process it. “Visual processing is spatial; we can blink and not much changes or is lost during that time,” Breznitz says. “So the brain learns that you have to attend to sequential auditory input more carefully than visual if you don't want to miss something. This priority given to audio by the brain actually blocks visual input, so that you can be looking right at something, but not really see it; it is just not registering.”

For Breznitz and like-minded scientists, this means that cell phones are “unfair competition” for a driver's attention, something that is not generally true of other more repetitive and regular audio input, such as the sound of the radio or conversation with a passenger. “We can handle other tasks if the driving is simple, slow and easy,” he notes, “if there is no traffic, no hurry, no turns, no complications; but we cannot listen if we need to pay attention to the road.”

In a nutshell, this is why using a hands-free phone is not much safer than using a hand-held phone, according to Breznitz. In fact, it may be that just the opposite is true. “If we are holding a phone and talking while driving, we are aware of our risk and make efforts to compensate,” he notes. “Timing [of audio input] is probably the solution to the problem of driver distractions, and the driver should be under control of that to some extent. Perhaps we need a device that would block all calls, give callers a message of apology, and automatically redial missed calls when the vehicle is no longer in motion.”

When it comes to regulating driver distractions, let's hope that legislators and regulators pull off the road and listen to voices like that of Breznitz to help guide and shape their efforts.