Using handheld devices such as cell phones or iPods while driving is less dangerous than commonly believed, Ford Motor Co. research indicates.
Since 1995, cell phone subscriptions have skyrocketed from 28 million users to 270 million. But during that time period, auto fatalities have declined, says Louis Tijerina, technical specialist-Ford Research and Advanced Engineering.
The seemingly contradictive data can be explained by differentiating the ways handheld devices are used while driving, Tijerina explains.
The data suggests “it's looking away from the road scene that creates highway safety problems,” he says during a recent media event here. “The so-called cognitive distraction, or the ‘lost-in-thought phenomena,’ when you're looking at the road scene but don't see something, appears to be a smaller part of the problem than previously believed.”
Tijerina says some researchers ascribe the drop in fatalities to improved vehicle safety.
“But what safety technologies are we talking about? Center-mounted (brake) lights that came out in the mid-1980s were supposed to reduce rear-end crashes by 50%,” Tijerina says. But U.S. Department of Transportation research suggests a decline of 3% to 5%.
And antilock brake technology, once heralded as the next great step in automotive safety, has had a “net-zero effect on crash rates” in the U.S., he says.
Not only is cognitive distraction not an issue, it may actually benefit drivers in some cases. According to one study, talking on a cell phone while driving can actually increase mental alertness during long monotonous trips.