The human brain while driving and …

It was only a matter of time, I suppose, until I had to advance from venting about the evils of distracted driving here on The Hannibal Blog to doing so in The Economist. So here it is. My rubric says it all:

Distracted driving is the new drunk driving.

The research and writing process had the usual frustrations (usual for The Economist, I mean): I talked to lots of people, read many tens of thousands of words of academic research, took more than 10,000 words of notes, and then…. reduced it all to 700 words.

Oh well. Out went a whole lot of nuance.

If you ask me to name the most interesting concept from the article, and about the whole topic, it is this:

The human brain cannot process communication (oral or written) with a person who is not physically present without drastically reallocating attention and thus compromising driving safety. This is a biological fact. All those who claim that they can call/text and drive are the modern equivalents of the people you might (if you’re older) recall bragging that “I can hold my liquor” before that started sounding ridiculous.

As Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary biologist and a delightfully belligerent blogger, puts it:

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.

Steering a large metal weapon at lethal speeds through crowded surroundings, of course, is also “evolutionarily novel”. So we have a double whammy. Homo sapiens just didn’t do this stuff in the savannah.

And yes, this means that bluetooth (“hands-free”) does zero to reduce the risk.

Anyhoo, here is just a tiny sample of some of the research that, sadly, got little or no exposure in my article for lack of space:

42 thoughts on “The human brain while driving and …

  1. It seems that the only surefire way to eliminate this problem in the long run is for all of us to do a lot of talking on the phone and texting while driving until the human brain has evolved to handle both things at once without any reduction in parietal lobe functionality.

    • That’s the spirit. In fact, I personally recall the dinosaurs having a meeting and passing a resolution that “It’s OK, because the genes in a few of us will make it through and then become birds.” 😉

    • The genetic adaptation won’t happen overnight, but given another few thousand years, we’ll eventually get there.

      Have you come across a study on New York City cab drivers? Because these guys are notorious for blathering into their headsets or blueteeth or whatever all day long while navigating the grid.

  2. If I cannot watch t.v. and talk on the phone I don’t try it in the car. I don’t like to talk on a phone when I’m the passenger in a car. I’m happy to keep my phone OFF.

  3. Satoshi* is likely right about that evolutionarily novel description and I agree with you that simply driving (without any distraction) can also be described as such. But that implies these can become no longer novel. The question might be “How many generations might that take?” Have we fully, and genetically, adapted to driving after over a hundred years since the automobile was introduced? I suggest we haven’t though I am certainly no expert in the field. Perhaps innovation and change are coming too fast for us to properly adapt.

    *Satoshi’s blog is one of my favorites.

    • “*Satoshi’s blog is one of my favorites.” Amen. I love him best when he offends me.

      Re the rest, you’re joking, right? Evolution has had 0 chance to work on us in the car era (or in the electric-light era, the fast-food era or any other era). Which is to say that our genome is still optimized for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, or at best the early agricultural lifestyle (some people say that reflects the different blood types).

      For us to respond evolutionarily to cars, some of us who are still in the reproductive years would have to have some gene mutation or combination that gives us a safety edge in traffic (both as pedestrians and drivers), and they would have to survive at a much greater rate, then pass on the gene mutation/combination to their offspring, who would again have a higher survival/repro rate etc etc.

    • Satoshi never seems to annoy me. But maybe I haven’t been reading him log enough. 🙂

      Yes, I was joking… in a sense. It is the “evolution” part of the equation that is quite unimportant. There is nothing in driving or speaking on a phone that would trigger a need for evolution. Adaptability pressure, yes, but no evolutionary pressure. We do, I think, have physical evolution going on in a cosmetic sense and there may be inherent skill sets that are being favored by evolutionary pressures but, for the most part, our technological advancements are not involved in it.

      Why are teens more comfortable with cell phone use and texting than senior citizens? Because they grew up with cell phones being ubiquitous and texting was an offshoot advancement on that. The cellphone was already a tool within their environment. They had less to adapt to. But we should be talking adaptation rather than evolutionary changes.

      See what happens when I infer something that may not be intended? The term evolutionarily novel is what brought this on.

  4. Thanks for providing all that research. Again, you and Ms Smith are right that distracted driving must become “totally uncool, socially unacceptable” if we’re going to decrease it. I admit to driving while distracted sometimes and it’s not the police that have made me think twice – instead my conscience starts to sound like you.

    • Well, we all drive distracted some times, because that’s just human. But awareness (ie, loss of overconfidence and denial) is the first step. I’ve become much less bad over time.

  5. Hey Andreas,

    What if a person has a blue tooth attached to the music system in the car and not to his ear? So, when you receive a call, you are talking into a mic attached on the top right corner of the windshield. So, you are talking to the road ahead and listening to the other person talk on your car speakers. Surely, it’s not the same as listening to music, but what does your research say about this? Is this less dangerous than having a “hands free” where the headphones are pressed hard into your ears?

    Also, if Blaupunkt manufactures bluetooth enabled speakers, are they doing something illegal? In Mumbai, the commute time is as long as 4 hours (to and fro) and if you can’t afford a driver, Blaupunkt does the trick for you!

    • As it happens, I have one of those systems, Abhishek.

      Alas, it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever. I’m smirking, because you and we all are of course desperate — desperate! — to find “the loophole”. There isn’t one. The fact is that it’s the two-way conversation with somebody who is not present that makes for cognitive overload. You can implant a chip in your head to speak to, and it still wouldn’t make a difference.

    • Abishek: Mumbai traffic is ideal for a completely risk-free nice chess game. Between Nariman point and Andheri Kurla road you can play your driver and someone on the Blaupunkt phone, as you prefer.
      My recent co-passengers were a guy from town and an English man and they were trying to teach me the rules of the game. Insisted that it’s better than baseball. We needed to circle town twice and I’m still not convinced.

    • Peter Practice, I’ll have to agree with you on that! But thankfully, the situation in Bombay is not as bad as in Bangkok where traffic cops are trained to deliver babies; many eager to-be-dads can’t parcel their wives to the hospital in time.

      I guess, the concept of ‘cognitive overload’ doesn’t exist there. Talking on the phone would be a nice way of killing time!

  6. Andreas, you reinforced my fear! I’ve noticed myself make elementary mistakes while in rush hour traffic at 10 km per hour or while trying to park when I’m talking to someone into that mic.

    Here’s a tip for all those who would still like to use that blue tooth mic connected to the music system: do it when you are cruising at 100 miles per hour. Am kidding of course. Use it while chugging along (modern standards) at 60mph which will at least give you time to reflect on that life which will flash before your eyes before you hit something.

    And I agree with you, @urbannight. You make a good point!

  7. I’m currently visiting the US and talking on the phone while driving seems to be a very popular pastime! Keep those 700 word articles coming and maybe more people will get the message.

  8. “……..Steering a large metal weapon at lethal speeds through crowded surroundings, of course, is also ‘evolutionarily novel’………Homo sapiens just didn’t do this stuff in the savannah…….”

    I have this, like, feeling that homo sapiens didn’t play basketball or tennis or snooker in the savannah either. But this hasn’t prevented the development of a high degree of expertise in these activities by many thousands, nay millions, of their practitioners. The more one practices anything – no matter how alien it would have been to the erstwhile denizens of the savannah – the better one becomes at it. Practice makes perfect, does it not?

    Hence, the more one practices driving a vehicle while using a cell phone, the better one will become at simultaneously doing both.

    Since well-nigh everyone now has a cell phone, and well-nigh everyone now drives, the adult way of dealing with the problem of using cell-phones while driving, is to make it a requirement that all applicants for drivers licences demonstrate an ability to drive safely while using a cell phone.

    Just as all driving licence aspirants must practice starting and stopping in a hill, and must practice parallel parking, and must practice driving at certain speeds on highways, until they are good enough at these to merit a driving licence, so they would now also be required to practice simultaneously driving and using a cell phone, until they are good enough at this to merit a driving licence.

    As I said earlier, this is the adult solution.

    • This is no solution at all, neither adult nor otherwise. You can demonstrate an ability to drive safely while using a cell phone until the cows come home. Obviously, the problem is that talking on the phone diverts some of the attention that would otherwise be paid to the road, and this distraction of focus increases the likelihood of an accident.

      How would you suggest this small distraction be measured during training? What are driving schools supposed to do? Hook up their students to a brain scanner to check whether they are distracted by the phone even though they don’t seem distracted by it because they perform all vehicular tasks perfectly well in spite of talking on the phone?

      I would assume that most drivers who end up killing themselves and others on account of this small diversion of focus have demonstrated an admirable ability to perform both tasks simultaneously many, many times, and the majority of them would have aced the texting-while-driving test.

      They might as well teach driving-while-drunk in driving school. No one gets a license unless they show up plastered for their road test.

    • “Since well-nigh everyone now has a cell phone, and well-nigh everyone now drives, the adult way of dealing with the problem of using cell-phones while driving, is to make it a requirement that all applicants for drivers licences demonstrate an ability to drive safely while using a cell phone.”

      This makes no sense to me. First, driving regularly puts in front of a person unforeseen, unpredictable situations, many of which are dangerous and few of which could be easily replicated in a driving test. Second, according to the research in the post above (I didn’t read all of it, I admit, but I’m trusting the writer’s analysis and summary of it), nobody drives well while talking on the phone. It’s not a matter of needing to practice, it’s a matter of how our brains work and the fact that driving can be very dangerous (which we all collectively have a tendency to push out of our minds to ensure our daily commutes aren’t too dramatic).

      Talking on the cell phone while driving is not a necessity, so why should we all put ourselves and others in danger by insisting that everyone should not only be allowed to do it, but provide extra societal approval for it by insisting that people must learn to do it to be allowed to drive at all? This is merely encouraging irresponsibility.

    • @Philippe, one can mitigate the distraction by becoming used to it through practice but one can never eliminate it. And, I suspect, some people can never even get used to some distractions under some conditions. Minimizing does not eliminate the impact of a distraction.

      @iosognodisonno, Could we agree that act of driving itself is a series of distractions that we navigate? We want to simply move from point A to point B, staying within our lanes and at a pace that is in sync with other vehicles. There are constant distractions: pedestrians, traffic lights, other cars, scenery, billboards and signs, noise, the car’s sound system, glare (sun or, at night, oncoming cars), complex intersections and freeway interchanges, stop signs, passengers engaging us in conversation, and so much more. Some testing for the ability to deal with distractions should be part of the equation but I doubt we could avoid licensing people who have a less than perfect talent for dealing with them.

      @Andreas, thanks for that link. A heartbreaker, for sure. But was the mother of the child also distracted by something that she was unaware of the approaching car? Obviously, there needs to be some heavier penalty for such dire consequences of distracted driving. But where do we draw the line?

    • Andreas,

      “BRAIN ON ROAD” jolts a little and could work for teenagers.

      It seems one will not do.


    • How about…

      All together now, one, two, three
      Keep your mind on your drivin’
      (Keep your hands on the wheel
      Keep your snoopy eyes on the road ahead
      We’re havin’ fun sittin’ in the back seat
      Kissin’ and a’huggin with Fred

      I always wanted to be Fred.

    • @ Douglas

      I was told there were seven girls in the backseat admonishing the driver. Poor Fred. 🙂

  9. All car chassis (pl.) should be made from magnetized metal with the same pole facing outward. Wouldn’t prevent passers-by from getting run over, but at least vehicles would repel one another, thus rendering collisions impossible.

    • Are you thinking of, like, a shape made from a shell with a ‘pole’ facing outward yet the shape has no net polarization? I can’t get my head around that, but I bet you can find some venture capital. If people were polarized in such a way, you could pack them into the subway train and no one would be touching. You wouldn’t have to touch anything to remain standing.

      By the way, it’s almost 4:20 on 4/20. A good day to have a conversation about polarized shells on your nearest campus.

    • I thought we were already pretty polarized. At least, that’s what I hear from those political pundit “talking heads” on TV.

    • Do you gents know what happens when magnetic fields move? Since power lines run next to roads… hmmmmm.

  10. I’m disappointed to learn that your editors left so much of the original article out.
    In my view, this issue is so serious that it should have been on the front page of the Economist.
    What an opportunity to have impact on drivers worldwide.

    We all do our best from our small spheres of influence, but you have the amazing opportunity to change opinion.

    Were I you, I would have been ticked off to the max. I guess you have come to understand how it all works up there where these types of decisions are made.

    Are you interested in becoming an editor?

    • Well, I have to choose my occasions to be ticked off. Otherwise, I’d be nothing else BUT ticked off. As it happens, I had a bigger fish to fry: my Special Report on California, which is, as of this hour, slated to be on the cover, will be out this coming issue, so that’s kept me busy…

  11. It would be helpful if the iPhone could handle an incoming call by first checking its magnetometer for car engine noise. If found, it could then answer with the message:

    “The phone you are calling appears to be in an operating motor vehicle. Please leave a message.”

    The phone could then route any incoming message to voicemail and, optionally, the speaker.

  12. Sir, have you heard that to make texting easier and faster they have a new iPhone app. It converts voice to text using voice recognition, sends the text, then converts it back to voice on the other persons cell. They named it a “phone call!” I was thinking on texting my friend but then thought I’d just dial since I HAD A PHONE IN MY HAND!!!! I equate texting to towing my jet behind my car. And no, I wouldn’t do it while driving. LOVE your Blog sir.

    • Hello, Patrick, and welcome to the HB.

      My what a fascinating app that is. Does anything suggest that its makers are aware of the irony? I sort of remember having similar thoughts when first pondering, a few decades ago, our civilization’s insistence on transporting us up and down to a gym with elevators and then giving us treadmills once we alight.

  13. Wow. I’d love for you to break down these situations for different countries. I bet the US is one of the most dangerous places to drive now. Too many teenagers driving and 90% of them are addicted to texting. India is pretty bad for talking and driving, but at least the traffic is slower there. How is it in other countries?

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