Do Not Get Distracted by Georgia’s New Cell Phone Law, Georgia Tech Professor Urges

Michael Pearson

Thursday, June 28th, 2018

While undoubtedly a step forward, Georgia’s new handheld driving law could end up actually encouraging drivers to engage in dangerously distracting behavior behind the wheel, according to a Georgia Institute of Technology professor who has studied the issue for more than a decade.

“Drivers might say, ‘Oh, good. They looked into what things are dangerous and they've banned everything that’s unsafe. And that means for anything else we might want to do with our phone while driving, we're good to go.' But that's just not true scientifically speaking,” said Robert Rosenberger, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Public Policy, a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.

Those distracting behaviors that remain legal include hands-free calling and messaging, as well as interacting with the colorful in-dash infotainment systems increasingly common in new cars.

The law, which goes into effect July 1, replaces the state’s ban on texting while driving with a complete prohibition on holding or cradling a cell phone or other electronic device while on the road. It also limits other behaviors, such as sending or reading text-based communications, video chatting while driving or wearing headphones to listen to music.

With the new legislation, Georgia becomes the 17th state to ban handheld phone use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

While Rosenberger said such laws undoubtedly save lives, they also ignore the large and growing body of evidence that hands-free phone use is just as dangerous as fiddling with your phone.

Why is that?

Rosenberger, a philosopher who studies our engagement with technology, says there is something about the experience of talking on the phone — any phone — that makes us pay less attention to what’s happening around us.

“When you're in a room by yourself, and you're using the phone, your mind is on the conversation, right? You might have a whole bunch of things on your wall in front of you, a bookcase, or pictures or knickknacks; you're not looking at those, right? Even though your eyes are open, and you're looking forward, your mind is on the conversation. And we do that every time we're on the phone.” he said.

“The reason we're so bad at driving while using the phone is that those habits kick in,” he said. “When the driving gets boring, and the phone conversation gets interesting, our mind can drift into this place where we're thinking about the phone call rather than processing the visual information in front of us.”

Conversations with passengers tend to be less distracting because they ebb and flow with what’s going on around the car, helping the driver disengage from the passenger and focus on the road when conditions warrant, Rosenberger said.

So what’s a tech-addled driver surrounded by flashing, beeping, whirring gadgets to do?

“We’ve got to get out of the mindset that our time behind the wheel is a good chance to get some calls made for work, check our messages, or catch up with friends. We need to treat driving like we’ve got other people’s lives in our hands, because we do.”