Root cause of car-phone risks

29 July 2005

According to research highlighted by New Scientist, it is the poor sound quality of a telephone conversation that makes talking on a mobile while driving so dangerous.
Earlier this month research carried out in Australia suggested that drivers are four times more likely to be involved in a crash if they are talking on the phone “regardless of sex, age group, or whether or not a hands-free device was used”.
Now research by boffins in Japan suggests that distortions introduced into a cell-phone conversation by a car’s movement mean the brain has to devote extra attention to working out what was said. A phone call in a moving vehicle works the brain harder than a normal conversation.
The researchers suggest that this is why a phone call is more distracting than chatting to a passenger in the car. “Previously, it was assumed that speaking to passengers was less distracting because they stop talking when the driver needs to concentrate,” New Scientist says, which was always a muddle-headed argument. Auto IT’s experience has shown that spouses very often elect to bring up taxing discussions about life, love, or politics while Auto IT is attempting to filter onto a busy motorway.
Anyway, the findings suggest a way forward, and also problems ahead.
Improving the sound quality of mobile phones may make them less distracting, and therefore safer.
However, one of the root causes of distortion is the phone’s need to switch communications between different base stations as the car moves into and out of range of the fixed transmitters. The latest 3G mobile phones will need to switch more often for a given road speed, as 3G cells are smaller than existing GSM cells.
There’s a dilemma, therefore. The 3G system offers the data rates that will be needed to do the audio processing to compensate for the distortion problems, but 3G will also worsen the problems that need to be fixed.

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