Smartphones at the wheel: “An effect comparable with narcotics”

More and more often, drivers are using their smartphones while driving. In doing this, they put themselves and those around them in immense danger. Psychologist Volkmar Bertke from the DEKRA Assessment Unit for Driver Fitness (BfF) has worked to discover exactly how high the risk of causing an accident is, why so many of us ignore the danger, and how we can work to put an end to it.

A woman sitting in car and using her smartphone. Photo: Fotolia deineka

A woman sitting in the car and using her smartphone. Photo: Fotolia deineka

Penalties for smartphone usage: 100 euros and a demerit point

Bertke also has serious doubt as to whether the recently passed increase in penalty fines from 60 to 100 euros (plus at least one demerit point on one’s license) will lead to a reduction in offences. He refers to more drastic sanctions used in Germany’s European neighbors. In the United Kingdom, telephoning at the wheel will land you with a 200 pound fine. In Ireland, it can lead to a prison sentence of up to three months. The prerequisite for this, however, is that the driver is caught twice in one year.

More police checks

Bertke is convinced that more police checks are necessary, but also knows: “People feel unobserved in their cars. It is an anonymous space. Many now have their phones ready to grasp, in their laps or on the passenger seat. To recognize or monitor this is as good as impossible.

In a variety of surveys, motorists have made it blatantly clear that they are aware that distraction by phone puts them in danger. Yet thanks to the low risk of sanctions, habits are developing, ultimately lulling drivers into a false sense of security, explains Bertke. Another important factor is that there is an immediate “benefit” of using a smartphone. “In that moment, it is more important to me that I know what my best friend has written, than reflect on the risk of what could happen in a worst-case scenario,” is the driver’s thought process. It is therefore a matter of weighing up risks against the belief that one can avert any danger and keep the vehicle under control. At DEKRA driving trials at the driver training area in Bielefeld, it has however been demonstrated that this is impossible, even at low speeds. Test subjects were also likely to overlook red traffic lights when using their phones.

Eyes on the display: 30 meters blind at 50 kilometers per hour

Because accidents, when measured against kilometers driven, are actually very rare events, these road users feel that their faith in their ability has been confirmed. However, even a two second glance at one’s phone at 50 km/h results in 30 meters of blindness to surrounding traffic situations. That’s six or seven car lengths. If a child were to suddenly run into the road, a door to open, or a ball to bounce onto the road, the ability to brake in time is removed. And if one is traveling along the freeway at 130 km/h, two seconds will equate to 70 meters of blindness. Many chime in with claims that the risk can be mitigated by driving slower or leaving a greater distance to the car in front. Bertke: “How can this be considered safe and forward-thinking driving? It’s an illusion, plain and simple.”

 The driver looks at the smartphone, he doesn't notice the ball. Photo: Norbert Böwing

The driver looks at the smartphone, he doesn’t notice the ball. Photo: Norbert Böwing

Bertke also refers to a study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in 2016: Over a three-year period, approximately 3,500 participants were examined regarding their driving behavior. Cars were fitted with cameras, sensors and radars. In this time, there were 905 accidents (resulting in both minor and major personal injury and property damage). In 68.3 percent of accidents, distraction was directly attributed. Our psychologist from Bielefeld sums up: “The risk of accident is therefore evidently far higher. By typing an SMS or WhatsApp message, the risk can be six or even twelve times greater.” The authors of the study even concluded that circa four million of the annual eleven million accidents to happen on American roads are the direct result of distraction.

Naturally, the topic of distraction doesn’t just cover smartphone usage. It also refers to talking on the phone, operating a satnav, applying make-up, eating or even engaging in heated discussion with other passengers! “Multitasking, while a buzzword, is also just a myth. Our brains only have the ability to process a limited number of stimuli, and everything else is tuned out. Virtually everything other than the object of our focus is simply not perceived,” explains Bertke. This phenomenon is referred to as inattentional blindness by psychologists.

Measures to reduce distraction in the vehicle

What can now be done, in order to generally minimize distraction or to reduce the risk of accident? Even talking via a hands-free device is distracting, as is changing the radio station or operating a satnav. According to the DEKRA psychologist, measures need to address both technology and driver consciousness:

  • Deactivating the “input route” function on satnavs, or the operation of other telecommunication devices while driving (some manufacturers already do this).
  • The deactivation of “driving-irrelevant safety-critical functions and activities, such as using the internet via the on-board menu, while the vehicle is in motion.
  • Driver assistance systems such as emergency braking assistants and collision warning devices should be standard in all new cars.

Through education, driver’s must be brought to understand that distraction is not just dangerous, but using a smartphone while driving can have fatal consequences. In addition, a clear signal should be sent, that the usage of a smartphone at the wheel is unacceptable. Bertke: “In years gone by, it was accepted in society that one was still in a position to climb into the car and drive home after two or three beers or wines. Nowadays, this is absolutely taboo. We need to come to the realization as a society, that distraction caused by using a phone at the wheel is tied with considerable risk and peril to oneself and other road users, and is simply no longer acceptable.”