Why can’t I talk?

posted on September 27, 2020 by Katasi in from Scott

Why can’t I talk?

All agree that looking at your screen for a few seconds to message, Snap-chat, or find that playlist on Spotify, takes your eyes from the road and can kill.  We’ve all heard the “imagine driving the distance of a football field with your eyes closed” argument. It is cliche. It is true.

However, we hear mixed messages about hands-free phone use while driving; “My eyes are on the road, so I’m not distracted” or “It’s no different than talking to a passenger”.  

Are they both distracting?

Yes, but for very different reasons.

When someone texts while they drive, they’ve convinced themselves they are aware enough of their driving surroundings to safely take a peek at their phone: “I’m under control… I can look down for just a couple of seconds.”  A sometime fatal self-deception.  

Highway Patrol officers talk of the two tells of a distracted driving accident: a driver rear-ending slowed traffic or a driver drifting off the road into the shoulder or oncoming traffic. The misconception that a couple of seconds can’t hurt can be fatally optimistic.  

But what about hands-free talking with both hands on the wheel, with the drivers eyes on the road, aware of the driving surroundings? 

A conversation while driving is not distracting in itself as long as our brains are not overly tasked. Our cerebellum – the part of the brain that processes subconscious tasks such as walking and riding a bike – handles the driving.  You are aware of your surroundings, ready to take your brain off autopilot as soon as something unexpected occurs. 

This means the cerebrum – the part of brain that we use for problem solving and conscious thought – is free to daydream, talk to your daughter, sing along with the radio.  If a piece of trash falls off a truck, the cerebrum kicks in, takes the controls from the cerebellum autopilot, and you swerve around the object. Once the adrenaline wears off, the cerebrum and cerebellum go back to their respective tasks, “I’ll drive, you relax”.

A conversation with a passenger is relatively safe, as there is a social contract in play that calls for the passenger to immediately stop talking and allow the driver to focus if something gets sporty.  The driver also provides cues, as simple as “Hold on for a sec…”.  In addition, the passenger is often a co-pilot,  aware of surroundings and possibly seeing a threat before the driver. This social contract ensures an immediate and timely switch to the cerebrum working the problem.

The opposite happens when a driver is on their phone. A phone conversation highly tasks the cerebrum.  We are trying to communicate without the benefit of other cues, so our brains are working overtime, to pick up on and generate verbal cues in the absence of visual cues.  

When something unexpected happens, such as a four-lane road squeezing down to two because of construction, the cerebrum tries to engage, but it is already fully tasked by the conversation. And then the social contract kicks in, preventing us from a quick shift in attention. We find ourselves trying to say “could you hold on a minute”, or “I’ve got to go”, with our cerebellum focused on managing a conversation in a socially appropriate way, while at the same time trying to make complicated decisions about navigating.  The cerebellum is thrown into task overload. The equivalent of a naval aviator getting one too many problems to work as they are landing on a carrier. The social contract now becomes an enemy, keeping us in task overload, and we lose the ability to navigate the unexpected. If you need convincing,  try to find your way to a location in an unfamiliar city while having an  engaged conversation on your phone.  

In simple terms, distractions that take your eyes off the road create a dangerous situation. Distractions due to being on a phone prevent you from dealing with an unexpected, dangerous situation. 

There is not a simple practical solution for those that insist on talking on the phone while driving. While I believe that we will prevail with technologies that prevent distractions that take our eyes off the road, phone conversations while we drive are not going away. That ship has sailed. 

So what does that leave us with for those that insist on talking while driving?

Two suggestions:

Become aware of the nature of phone distractions. When you sense you are getting into a situation that will take full attention, end your call immediately.

And in a situation in which your full attention is immediately demanded, throw the social contract out the window. Say one word – “Pause!” – and let your cerebellum focus on the drive.  It may be perceived as rude until it becomes a part of our lexicon, but the alternative might be a conversation ending in the sound of a crash.