- The Washington Times - Monday, July 25, 2005

Dear motorist: If you like to drive while chattering away on your cell phone, pull over.

Or, at least, think twice. According to some new studies, you would have to think at least twice, or maybe 3 or 4 times as much as normal to make up for the useful brain power your cell phone conversation drains out of your brain, whether you use a hands-free device or not.

A study of Australian highway crashes published recently in the British Medical Journal found yakking on a cell phone while driving is 4 times likelier to lead to a serious crash, regardless whether the driver is talking to a handheld or hands-free phone.

Researchers for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted the study, the first to link actual accident data with phone records, in Western Australia, because phone companies in the United States would not grant access to wireless records, citing privacy concerns.

Closer to home, brain-imaging tests at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore found, even with a hands-free device, cell phone use forces the brain to redirect its resources to what it hears and says, away from the visual task of driving.

Or, as Steven Yantis, a professor of psychological and brain sciences, described it in announcing the test results in late June: “Directing attention to listening effectively ‘turns down the volume’ on input to the visual parts of the brain.”

That must be harsh news to lawmakers in states like New York and New Jersey and cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Santa Fe, N.M., that prohibit motorists’ use of handheld phones.

Though more studies are needed before laws are changed, the results so far tend to confirm a position some communications theorists have argued for years: The most powerful communications medium is not television, radio or newspapers; it’s the cell phone.

The late media guru Marshall McLuhan labeled the visual media like TV and newspapers the “cool” media because they demand our undivided attention much more than radio or music players.

But those who argue cell phones are no more distracting than radios underestimate the power of the cell. By the McLuhan standard, the telephone is extrapotent. It not only provides the “theater of the mind” radio broadcasters like to boast about, it also forces us to talk back.

“The phone is a doubly cool medium,” says Professor Paul Levinson, chair of communications and media studies at Fordham University. “On our cell phones, we are not just listening, but talking and conversing. Our eyes tend to zoom in on one thing at a time. Our ears are built for multitasking. Because of that, telephones may engage us more than any other medium.”

For the record, Mr. Levinson, author of “Cellphone: The Story of the World’s Most Mobile Medium and How It Has Transformed Everything” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), spoke to me by cell phone but assured me he wasn’t driving. That’s just as well. We don’t need a Johns Hopkins brain imaging study to tell us the human brain concentrates well on but one task at a time.

Indeed, the phone is special. It rings and we feel compelled to answer it. Right now. Its sound quality is low, so we feel compelled to shout even louder. It deludes us into thinking we are someplace else, conversing in private, so we reveal secrets out loud to strangers in public, secrets that, had we our wits about us, we would not want to tell our own mothers.

We can see that in some of the goofy scenes modern cell phone life has offered us:

• The well-dressed young professional woman who seems to be talking and gesturing to no one in particular, until you realize she’s talking on a hands-free cell phone.

• The similarly serious young man sitting alone in a restaurant, talking to no one in particular, it seems, until you spot the little hands-free cell phone cord hanging from his ear.

• The highly wired lawyer on a high-speed train from Manhattan to Washington blabbing his firm’s private business over his cell phone for everyone in the car to hear, whether they want to or not.

I’ve witnessed each of these modern urban creatures. As cell phone use continues to grow, I expect to see more of them — although, I hope, not behind the wheel.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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