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Why the Ban on Hand-held Devices in Cars May Not Reduce Accidents

Maybe it’s telephone conversations, not cell phones, that are distracting

Cell phone banA recent study shows that, contrary to expectations, the ban on the use of hand-held devices like cell phones while driving has not reduced the number of accidents on the road. How could that be?

The study, conducted by the Highway Loss Data Institute (it’s the only research institute that I know of whose name consists of four disjointed nouns), examines auto collision insurance claims in the three states (NY, CT, and CA) and the District of Columbia, all of which have introduced a ban on the use of hand-held devices while driving. The study compares the rates of accident claims before and after the law was enacted in each jurisdiction. In none of the states do the introduction and enforcement of the law banning the use of hand-held devices seem to have reduced the number of auto accidents. In New York, the rates of car accidents have been declining, but the decline began long before the introduction of the law. In Connecticut, California, and Washington DC, the accident rates have not declined.



While this may appear counterintuitive, and certainly contrary to the expectations of the legislatures which introduced and enacted the law, it may make perfect evolutionary psychological sense. As I mention in my review of Amy Alkon’s book I See Rude People, a study by Monk, Fellas, and Ley shows that people find overhearing others’ cell-phone conversations annoying and distracting, not necessarily because they are loud or on cell phones, but because they are one-sided. It appears that our theory of mind module, which allows us to infer others’ mental states, is always on; you cannot voluntarily turn it off. When we overhear conversations in which one party is inaudible, our theory of mind module must work extra hard to fill in the missing gap, and this consumes more cognitive energy than overhearing “normal” (two- or multi-sided) conversations. Hence the greater distraction and annoyance.

In other words, our theory of mind module is evolutionarily designed to work with overhearing both (or all) sides of the conversation. It is not designed to work with overhearing one-sided conversations because no such thing existed in the ancestral environment. When our ancestors overheard conversations, they always heard both sides. It may be the case that we find overhearing cell-phone (and other one-sided) conversations cognitively taxing and distracting because it is evolutionarily novel.

Similarly, carrying on a conversation with someone who is not present in front of you is evolutionarily novel. Our ancestors never carried on a conversation with anyone who is not present in front of them or whom they could not see during the conversation. We have had the telephone (which allows us to have such conversations) for more than a century now, but it is still evolutionarily novel. Our brain has not adapted to the telephone in the last century. So it is possible that telephone conversations per se, not necessarily cell-phone conversations, are cognitively taxing and distracting because they are evolutionarily novel.

Everyone (legislatures and publics alike) assumed that what was causing the accidents was the manual and mechanical handling of the device, not the conversations per se. After all, drivers have conversations with fellow passengers all the time, with seemingly no effect on safety. That is why, in all the states that currently ban the use of hand-held devices while driving, the use of hands-free devices is still legal. Drivers can (and do) legally carry on cell-phone conversations while driving as long as the device is hands-free. But the latest study from the Highway Loss Data Institute suggests that drivers who use hands-free devices are just as likely to cause road accidents as those who use hand-held devices.

Is it possible that cell-phone conversations in a car (no matter what the device) are qualitatively and significantly different from conversations with fellow passengers because they are evolutionarily novel? Is it possible that talking on a cell phone while driving is distracting and likely to cause an accident, not because the driver has to manipulate the device, but because telephone conversations are inherently cognitively taxing for their evolutionary novelty? Is it possible that telephone conversations in the past century have always been cognitively taxing and distracting, but we never realized just how much because we never had to drive a car (another evolutionarily novel task) at the same time until the invention of the cell phone? Is it possible that switching to hands-free devices while driving is not going to reduce the number of auto accidents at all, at least until we develop a new technology which can project a realistic holographic image of the person on the line in the passenger seat?

It occurs to me that it would be a simple matter to test these conjectures in an experiment.

About the Author
Satoshi Kanazawa

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