driver with cell phone

An article in The New York Times stood out to me at the end of September: Driven to Distraction–multi-tasking in the car is risky business.

Our high-speed culture seems compelled to get as much done as possible in every moment, multi-tasking in motion, even if it puts us and others at risk. The article focused on the dangers of attempting office work while zooming along at 60 mph.

The story began with a man named Paul Dekok, who used to talk on his cell phone regularly while on the road.

He recalled a day when a job seemed so urgent, he “grabbed his cellphone to arrange a new shipment, cradling it between his left ear and shoulder, and with his right hand e-mailed instructions to his staff from his laptop computer — all while driving his rental car in a construction zone on a two-lane highway in North Carolina.”

He confesses, “I thought I was doing a great job because I was being productive … It’s an adrenaline rush. It’s the buzz we all get of trying to do everything you can in business.”

Another businessman, Sean Ryan, explained, “It’s a seconds-count economy.”

He schedules work calls to make his own 45-minute commute — from Boston to Framingham, Mass. — more productive.

At stop lights, he checks texts and e-mail messages. He does not want to miss something important, but he also sees the practice as a time saver. “I might as well get a quick e-mail taken care of, or at least delete spam,” he said. “When I get to the office, I’ve saved 15 to 20 minutes of work.

But Mr. Ryan might want to rethink whether or not he’s truly saving that time—is he as productive as he thinks he is? The article referred to a growing body of studies suggesting that “such work may be less valuable than many people assume.”

neuronsThe brain can effectively perform only one difficult task at a time, the article stated. When a person tries to multitask, important neural regions must switch back and forth, which takes time and is less efficient. When this is happening on the go, it means that some distraction is taking place. In fact, drivers sending a text or e-mail typically take their eyes off the road an average of five seconds.

Those five seconds of distraction–are they worth it?

The article tells the story of Samantha Dawn Earnest, who was driving down a quiet stretch of road with her three children, Jason, 7; Dakota, 5; and Hailey, 4. The kids were talking about decorating their bedroom walls, discussing a dinosaur vs. horse theme.

As Ms. Earnest crested a hill, a delivery truck “swerved into her car, spun it around and sent it careening across the highway. Jason died on impact.”

Ms. Earnest, stunned and bleeding, saw the truck driver walking toward her.

“I said, ‘Why, why, why?’ ” she recalled screaming at him. “He told me, ‘I just took my eyes off the road for a second because I was looking at my computer.’ ”

She started chasing him.

“I went into a mad rage,” she said. “If he’d said he’d fallen asleep, maybe I’d have understood. But using a computer?”

[The driver], 24, received a suspended sentence for negligent homicide, a misdemeanor, and the Earnest family sued Mr. Noe’s employer, the ADA Coca-Cola Bottling Company.

The company settled, and the terms of the agreement are confidential. ADA did not respond to requests for comment.

Some people feel safe using the hands-free option while driving, but the article said that several studies show that drivers using headsets are as likely to crash as someone holding the phone to their ear. Also, that risk has been compared to driving at the legal limit for intoxication.

It was good to read that some corporations are imposing bans on cell phone use while driving—not even allowing hands-free use—and have found that productivity has not suffered.

Mr. Dekok, who was highlighted at the beginning of the article, has changed his habits. Now if the phone rings while he is driving, he lets it go to voicemail. He stops along the way and responds to the message within about 30 miles. He also lets others handle problems in the office when he is on the road.

His conclusion?

“After you go cold turkey, and get rid of the cellphone when you drive, you see other people’s behavior,” he said. “It’s like getting sober and realizing everyone else is still drunk.

Sure, we could insist that we’re more productive if we peek at that text or glance at a laptop screen while we’re in motion. Our love of efficiency and need to maximize every minute could convince us to take that call (and take that risk).

But declaring a phone-free/screen-free zone when the car is in motion could save a life.


Photos and images from stock.xchng. “No phone” image by Kriss Szkurlatowski.
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