Kate Hinds is an Associate Producer for WNYC News. She also reports for WNYC and Transportation Nation, a public radio reporting project that combines the work of multiple newsrooms to provide coverage of how we build, rebuild and get around the nation.
NTSB Head: Distractions Behind the Wheel Have Always Existed -- But Cell Phones Make It Worse
Wednesday, December 14, 2011 - 01:10 PM
Deborah Hersman, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board, went on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show Wednesday morning to talk about the Board's recent recommendation for a national ban on cell phones.
She also fielded calls from listeners -- like Lisa in Forest Hills, who called to ask about generational differences in cell phone capabilities. "I'm 45," she said, "and if I try to have a conversation while I'm driving, unless it's with someone physically in the car it's very distracting." So: if you grew up talking on cell phones, is it different?
Hersman said the generational differences have to do with the actual activity, not level of distraction. She said while older drivers talk more -- younger drivers are different. "What they're doing much more than talking is texting, or posting to Facebook, or tweeting," she said.
And are hands-free devices safer than holding the phone next to your ear? "What we're concerned about," said Hersman, "goes back to...the cognitive distraction. How the brain is engaged, and not just the hands or the eyes. It's that you're focusing your attention away from the task at hand...accidents develop and happen in the blink of an eye."
To which Brian interjected: "It's Siri versus the NTSB at this point."
Karen in South Harlem called in to say she's often "a completely cognitively alert passenger" on highways between the city and the Adirondacks. Frustrated by the amount of texting while driving she says she witnesses, she wanted to know if she could participate in "a citizen's arrest situation" using her cell phone -- either to call law enforcement or to photograph offenders.
Hersman wasn't willing to deputize passengers, but she agreed that there needed to be a mechanism in place to report on activities like this -- "just like if you suspect someone's drunk driving, making sure those types of things are reportable to law enforcement and they know how to handle those are important."
But the question of what constituted a distraction behind the wheel got the attention of both callers and Brian. Is listening to talk radio distracting? Music? Or eating? Why are those things any less dangerous than talking on the phone?
"Distractions have been around since the Model T," Hersman said, "whether it's people eating, or looking at things on the side of the road or reading billboards...I think there are a lot of distractions but what we're seeing with personal and portable electronic devices is that they're becoming more prevalent, being more used, and people are being more distracted behind the wheel."
You can listen to the segment below, or swing on over to the Brian Lehrer Show page, where you can also take part in the discussion via the comments section.