Time to quit phoning and just drive

About to head out to return some gifts? Or run errands? Or head back over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house? Why not do all that driving with one hand over one eye?

What a goofy suggestion, you say? Well, yes, it is. But that, in essence, is close to what we all do every time we drive and try also to carry on a phone conversation.

Daily Herald Transportation Writer Marni Pyke, in a recent installment in her excellent series, “Fatal Distraction,” shines a headlight on the myth that we can drive well and talk.

It makes no difference whether we’re talking on a phone or talking with our hands free and on the wheel. Our driving skills are impaired severely in either case.

There really is no such thing as successful multi-tasking. The Itasca-based National Safety Council compared more than 30 different studies of cellphone use and driving. Its employees concluded there is no difference in terms of safety between holding a phone or talking hands free.

Carnegie Mellon University scientists took brain images of people driving and listening to statements on a cellphone. Drivers were asked to judge whether the statements they were hearing were true or false. The brain images showed a marked decrease in activity in the areas of the brain that process vision, navigation and distance. Emotional conversations or those about directions were the most distracting in the study.

Need more proof? Another research project by Transport Canada tracked the eye movements of drivers operating a vehicle hands free and those operating a vehicle while holding a cellphone. Both groups made the same numbers of errors in missing traffic. Both suffered from a significant decrease in the number of times they checked traffic lights and mirrors. One University of Utah study found drivers using phones reacted more slowly to conditions than did drunken drivers.

Essentially, if we’re using a phone — hands free or not — it’s as if we’re driving impaired.

We have got to stop believing we’re invincible. We’ve got to keep reminding each other that driving takes skill and concentration. Driving distracted needs to become as socially unacceptable as driving drunk. Hands free is not accident free.

If you’re older than 20, you remember the “good old days” before cellphones. Somehow, we got from here to there without ever looking at a phone. We never answered a phone. We never sent a quick text with one hand while gripping the steering wheel. Remember phone booths?

Now, it’s up to us to have the discipline and common sense to do that again. And we need to begin considering the laws that will emphasize the point and provide the discipline, if not for us, then for the other drivers on the road. We can get where we need to go without that addictive newfangled phone. Or we can pull over and park if we need to use it. Sometimes, progress just isn’t.

Are cars getting too smart?

Tunnel vision Scientists: Our brains can’t safely juggle driving and cellphones, even hands-free

Texting by drivers up 50% in 2010 despite more state bans

Time for serious talk on cells and safety