Want Safe Driving? Forbid your Au Pair to use the cellphone in the car. Period.

by cv harquail on July 1, 2008

The announcement that California and Washington will ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving prompts me to write about safe driving and cell phones.

For a long time, we didn’t even give our Au Pair a cell phone, but now she has one for her own use and for family emergencies. So, we have established cell phone rules.

Our rule about cell phones & driving, outlined in our Au Pair Guidelines, is that our Au Pair may not EVER use the cell phone while the car is in motion. She is required to find a safe place to pull over and then call us back.

Hands-free or not, cellphones are dangerous for drivers.

People may think that this rule is draconian and unnecessary– and that it’s okay to use a hands-free cellphone. The facts show us otherwise. Herb Weisbaum, writing for MSNBC, offers “The truth about driving and talking on the cell”. (Click on the link to read Weisbaum’s whole article.)

…Research shows that hands-free calls are just as distracting as calls made on a handheld phone.

“The evidence is mounting that the conversation itself is the risk, not holding the phone,” says Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “The research shows the risk of having an accident is about four times higher for drivers using cell phones, whether it’s handheld or hands-free.”

But some people will argue that a hands-free phone solves the problem of distraction– which is why some states ban hand held phones, but not phones altogether. As Weisbaum explains:

People who want to believe driving while on the phone isn’t dangerous tend to point to other possible distractions: changing the radio, grabbing a beverage or reaching for a CD under the seat. These are all momentary distractions. A phone conversation can go on for several minutes or more. During that time, whether you want to admit it or not, you are distracted and not paying full attention to the road. That means you are more likely to have an accident that hurts or kills you or someone else.

For less-experienced drivers,cell phones are even more dangerous.

It gets even worse if the driver is relatively inexperienced. Even though your Au Pair may not be a teenager, and even though she may have been driving for a few years now, she is still a far LESS EXPERIENCED driver on US roads than an older person. Consider this:

According to Ford Motor Company research, teen drivers are four times more distracted than adult drivers by cell phone use.

Did you get that? Let me repeat it just in case:

Teen drivers are four times more distracted than adult drivers by cell phone use.

In a recent study, Ford … measured the effect of effect of age on cell phone distraction. Without any distractions, both the teens and the adults had a three percent miss rate in identifying potentially dangerous events, such as a car quickly changing lanes in front of them.

However, when the same test was run again with the addition of participants using a cell phone, the adult miss rate rose to 13 percent, while teen distraction levels rose to more than 50 percent (see chart).[ I have added the chart, below.]

During the experiment, each driver wore a hands-free headset and was asked to do a variety of tests as they “drove” down an interstate highway. The tasks included changing the radio station, adjusting the climate in the car, answering incoming phone calls, making phone calls and retrieving voice mail.

Need an easier way to explain these findings? Check out this chart:

That red bar on the far right? It should make your stomach flip.

For himself, Weisbaum concludes:

For the record, after doing all the research for this story, I have vowed to change my behavior. I will no longer use my car as a mobile office. I will not initiate calls, even with my headset on. If it’s a critical call, I will pull over to talk. If not, I will let it go to voicemail. I know I’ll slip sometimes, but I’m really going to try – because I know I’ll be a safer driver.

What you Host Moms can do:

1. Start by being a good role model. While driving with the kids, the Au Pair, or alone, don’t talk on a hand-held cellphone EVER. Use a hands-free cellphone rarely.

2. Forbid your Au Pair to use any kind of cellphone, even hands-free, no matter what ‘the law’ says, while she is driving.

3. Don’t kid yourself that, if you let her use a hands-free phone, she’ll never be tempted to skip putting in the ear piece and just hold the darn thing while talking and driving —with one hand!

4. Demonstrate to your Au Pair and to yourself just how EASY it is to respond to a ringing cell phone by finding a safe place to pull the car over, stop, and return the phone call. Remember that most of the time, you can just call the other person back– you don’t have to pick up the phone immediately.

5. Don’t expect your Au Pair to answer the cell phone immediately, and don’t be irked if it takes her 5 minutes to return your call. If she’s following your safety rules, she can’t always pick up immediately, right?

6. Set up a phone signal for real emergencies. Our signal is that you call a cell phone, let it ring, hang up, and call again.

7. Establish a penalty so severe that your Au Pair wouldn’t dare use the cell phone in the car. For example, if our Au Pair is ever seen using a cell in the car (By kids, by neighbors, by me) or found using a cell in the car (by answering while she’s obviously driving), she loses the privilege of driving the car for personal use for a month. Yes, a month.

(I know that we don’t want our kids to ‘rat out’ the Au Pair, but in circumstances related to safety rules, I’d rather my kids tell me than hide if from me. My kids have never had an au pair relationship where they wanted to be vindictive, so I haven’t experienced them wanting to ‘damage’ the Au Pair’s reputation in any way…)

Breaking the “No Cellphone While Driving” rule is such a serious violation of trust that I would consider this grounds for rematch.

A super-scary thing is that I know, deep down, that our Au Pairs have violated this rule and that I just haven’t ‘caught them’ doing it. I don’t want to be a b*&#% about it, but this rule is really important to me. I don’t expect my Au Pair to like this rule– but I can require her to respect this rule.  I just remember that …

— Our Au Pair is driving in the car with my babies, the people I love the most in this world. And, the Au Pair herself is someone’s baby; she needs to be kept safe too. Talk about “precious cargo”!! —

Comments? Suggestions? Please share your thoughts, below.

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Bob E July 1, 2008 at 1:27 pm

GREAT post!

I’d especially like to echo two points. First, I think the notion that a hands-free phone is noticeably safer is ludicrous.

This passage from a Malcolm Gladwell article explains why:

“Talking on a cell phone and trying to drive, for instance, is not unlike trying to count passes in a basketball game and simultaneously keep track of wandering animals. “When you get into a phone conversation, it’s different from the normal way we have evolved to interact,” David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, says. “Normally, conversation is face to face. There are all kinds of cues. But when you are on the phone you strip that away. It’s virtual reality. You attend to that virtual reality, and shut down processing of the here and now.” Strayer has done tests of people who were driving and talking on phones, and found that they remember far fewer things than those driving without phones. Their field of view shrinks. In one experiment, he flashed red and green lights at people while they were driving, and those on the phone missed twice as many lights as the others, and responded far more slowly to those lights they did see. “We tend to find the biggest deficits in unexpected events, a child darting onto the road, a light changing,” Strayer says. “Someone going into your lane. That’s what you don’t see. There is a part of driving that is automatic and routine. There is a second part of driving that is completely unpredictable, and that is the part that requires attention.”


Second, I like to urge all of you not to talk and drive for a “non-au pair” reason — it’s safer for you and for everyone around you.

Finally, a thought that I intend to offer gently, given that the focus of this blog is on moms. Au Pair Dads should be just as vigilant about this subject as moms are/should be. And Au Pair Dads should set an example by refraining from talking and driving not just to be a role model for the au pair, but also to be a role model for your kids!

cvh July 1, 2008 at 2:35 pm

Your comments and extra data really help to make the point. I want to highlight your additional point too — we should not use phones in the car simply because it’s safer for everyone. –Thanks for the reinforcement!

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