The Scientific Fundamentalist

A look at the hard truths about human nature.

Why the New Hands-Free Texting App Will Not Reduce Car Accidents

It’s the brain, stupid. It’s not the hands.

A company in Boston, AdelaVoice, has invented a smart-phone application called StartTalking that allows drivers to send and receive text messages while driving.  Unfortunately, however, such a hands-free texting device will not reduce the likelihood of an accident while texting.

To date, 30 states have outlawed texting while driving.  The new smart-phone application is obviously designed to get around such laws and allow the drivers to text while driving.  However, the device is unlikely to reduce accidents for the same reason that the use of hands-free cell phones apparently has not reduced auto accidents.

As I explain in an earlier post, it is not the use of the hands while driving that is likely contributing to the greater likelihood of accidents while talking on the cell phone or texting, but the use of the brain for an evolutionarily novel, “unnatural” behavior of communicating with a person who is not present.  Hands-free devices do not alter the evolutionary novelty of such communication, so they are not likely to be less cognitively taxing than hand-held cell phones.

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Because there was no such thing as communicating with someone who is not present within the earshot in the ancestral environment, all such communications are evolutionarily novel.  And the human brain, designed for and adapted to the conditions of the ancestral environment, has inherent difficulty comprehending and dealing with all such communications.  It likely finds such tasks cognitively demanding and taxing, and a greater portion of their cognitive energy and attention will have to be diverted from the (equally evolutionarily novel) task of driving a car to the cell phone conversation.  The human brain likely finds it too cognitively demanding to carry on two such evolutionarily novel tasks simultaneously and efficiently.

If the hands-free texting application reduces the likelihood of accidents at all, it is probably not because it is hands-free, but because it allows the users to use (evolutionarily familiar) spoken language, rather than (evolutionarily novel) written language, in the communication.

Any communication with parties who are not immediately present is evolutionarily novel, and the human brain is likely to find it cognitively difficult to handle.  This includes listening to music or talk on the radio as well (even though it is only one-way communication, not two-way as in cell phone conversations or texting).  This is why, as Johnny Carson was fond of remarking, we all turn off the radio or reduce the volume when we have to concentrate on driving, as when we have to follow driving instructions carefully or locate an address.  I am not sure if listening to the radio is more distracting than listening to fellow passengers.  We don’t seem to ask our passengers to stop talking when we are trying to concentrate on driving.

If we want truly to reduce auto accidents as a result of cell phone conversations, we shouldn’t be using hands-free devices, because they do not do anything to alter the evolutionary novelty of the conversation.  As I mention in the earlier post, we should develop a technology that allows us to project a holographic image of the person we are speaking to inside the car.  Short of that, we should encourage people to use the new iPhone application Facetime that allows them to see the other person on the phone.  (Promotional consideration for the Scientific Fundamentalist provided by Apple.)  Using Facetime should somewhat fool their brain into thinking that the person they are communicating with is immediately present, especially if they are less intelligent.

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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