Conversations one of many distractions for drivers

Published 10:51 am Friday, September 16, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, Albert Lea Tribune editor Tim Engstrom car-pooled with Herald editor Adam Harringa and me from a meeting in the Twin Cities. We had escaped most of the metro traffic madness by heading home about 3 p.m. — enjoying the opportunity, with three of us on board, to use the car pool lane on 35W.

We were making good time, chatting about this and that as we rolled south past Owatonna. At Highway 14 East, I exited like I always do to connect up with Highway 218.

“What are you doing?” Tim asked — rather mildly, under the circumstances, because 218 was definitely not the right way to deliver him to Albert Lea. And with the endless construction and reconstruction of that interchange, there was no way to simply swing around and get back on the right track.

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Why did I miss that turn — or, rather, why did I take a turn at all when I knew perfectly well that our destination was Albert Lea? As previously mentioned, we were chatting about this and that, including how my favorite team, the Green Bay Packers, was again a Super Bowl favorite.

It didn’t take much to divert my attention just enough that I wasn’t really focused on where I was going. What would have happened if, instead of making a wrong turn, I’d had to deal with a truck slamming on its brakes in front of me, or a driver swerving out of her lane next to me? Perhaps it would not have been good.

I thought back to that when I read a wire service report this week about a new National Transportation Safety Board recommendation that drivers of commercial vehicles — in other words, trucks — should not be allowed to talk on the phone while they are driving, even if they’re using a hands-free phone.

That recommendation is controversial, not only because lots of truck drivers talk on the phone but because it would be a first step toward a similar ban on cell phone use for drivers in their personal vehicles. That’s you and me.

There was a day when I would have argued loud and long about how wrong it is to make such a rule. In fact, I wrote a column five or six years ago in which I contended conversation was the least of several possible driving distractions. Experience, as with so many other things, seems to suggest the opposite is true.

The reality is that we’ve learned, at painful cost, that lots of people get hurt and killed when drivers have their heads down thumbing text messages into their phones. It’s against the law to do that now, as it should be. It’s a law that is probably violated nearly as often as the speed limit on Interstate 90. But at least it’s a law.

And maybe it makes sense to apply the same sort of law to voice conversations. For one thing, it’s unusual to have one of those conversations without looking at the phone — even though it’s possible to have a hands-free phone, to use voice-activated dialing, most people do not. They’re not looking at the road while they are dialing or answering their phones.

Then there’s the pure distraction of conversation. Even if most of those conversations are as banal as, “Honey, please pick up a gallon of milk on the way home,” some are far more intense. How likely is it that the woman who is arguing with her husband on the phone while she drives is also paying close attention to the road? Not very.

Americans, as a people, are accustomed to the idea that their cars are the right place to do just about anything. But are they a place where we need to do anything but drive? Perhaps we’d all be better off if we did one thing — or, at most, two — at a time. And how many phone conversations are so important that they can’t be delayed a few minutes until it’s safe to pull over? How many trips require such speed that we can’t stop driving for a few minutes to handle a phone conversation.

The reality is that talking is a distraction. And almost nothing would be lost by eliminating that distraction, while much might be gained.