TransOptions Newsletter

Cognitive Load and Distracted Driving

Say you’re driving while talking on your cell phone. We all know that  no matter the subject, your phone call is a matter of life and death. When you’re maneuvering a ton of steel, flesh and flammable fuel down the highway, talking on a phone quadruples the risk of an accident. That danger isn't diminished if you’re using your phone hands-free. It’s the conversation, not the physical device that distracts and kills.

Still, when you’re on that phone call, it shouldn’t matter where the other person is calling from, right?

Wrong. The geographic location of your conversational partner seems to matter a great deal. In perhaps the most fascinating detail ever about cars and phones, drivers were more distracted—and drove much worse—when they thought the person they were speaking to on the phone was geographically farther away.

A recent and terrifying Science News cover story about distracted driving explains this strange phenomenon in terms of something called “cognitive load.” The article quotes sociologist Clifford Nass of Stanford University: “When we communicate with a person we can’t see, we create a mental image of them.” When conversational partners are farther apart, or even were just thought to be farther apart by study participants, the brains of drivers had to do more work.

Many drivers, of course, ignore existing laws on distracted driving. Nass points out in the article that many young people view the windshield as “just another screen.” It can be easy to criticize states like Montana and South Carolina, which have no statewide restrictions at all on phone calls, even for school bus drivers. (They don’t even ban texting, which may increase the risk of a crash 23-fold.)  Not even the strictest of states, like New Jersey, have enacted the restrictions that many experts say the evidence demands - a ban for general drivers, not just on texting and handheld phones, but also on hands-free calls.