A Pilot’s Cell Phone Distraction

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - April 21, 2005
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As a fighter jock (common aviator shorthand for fighter plane pilot: “jet jocky”), I had many safety briefings which stressed priorities in the cockpit. Indeed, all military tactical (fighter and attack) aviators must become at ease with multitasking to the extreme.

The key is the basic “scan,” whereby the pilot develops a habitual technique of taking in and processing all the information from the instrument panel and the surrounding environment. The pilot is monitoring, nearly simultaneously, the flight instruments that show attitude (position of aircraft), altitude, airspeed, heading, rate of ascent or descent, engine instruments, fuel quantity and distribution, and navigation instruments. The external scan (keeping one’s “head out of the cockpit”) is just as important, as the pilot monitors the proximity of other aircraft, weather indicators, and when flying at low level, keeping the tree tops below you and the bridges above you. Combine this with communicating position and mission status reports to the ship’s Combat Information Center, and keeping your wingman informed of all intentions using hand signals from cockpit to cockpit.

Imagine all the above in clouds, heavy rain or snow, the dark of night and at speeds of 250 mph or better. All this is simplified by emphasizing the basic priorities: 1) Fly the airplane. 2) Navigate. 3) Communicate. Obviously, if you don’t fly the airplane safely, navigation and communication become moot. A fighter pilot’s professionalism is measured by how well he/she handles these mechanical functions combined with decision-making and judgment.

Now fast-forward to my first business trip with a cellular phone in 1995. After leaving the hotel, I realized I’d misplaced the directions to the place I was to speak. No problem, I have my cell phone. I called my secretary and, since I couldn’t write while driving, concentrated on memorizing the directions. While doing so I realized at the intersection I was approaching the light had just turned red, but I was too close and fast to stop so sucked it up and barreled on through. I barely missed a woman coming from the opposite direction who had started her left turn in front of me. Her blaring horn and piercing stink eye compounded my embarrassment. Here I was, an experienced multitasker, coming to the realization that I might not be able to do these two specific things — drive safely and concentrate on something unrelated to that task: 1) Drive the car. 2) Navigate. 3) Communicate. My scan had really broken down.

Since that time, I have tried to avoid cell phone use while driving, maybe occasionally initiating a very short call — “Hi, I’m on my way home, be there in about 20 minutes. Love ya, bye”— or pulling off the road when receiving a call or “I’ll call you back a lil’ later, bye!”

Senate Judiciary chair, Colleen Hanabusa, apparently thinks there is not enough evidence that a hand-held cell phone is more distracting than eating or putting on makeup. So, predictably, the Legislature has put off any action until there is more study.

In my experience and opinion, the current debate on cell phone use while driving should not focus on “hands-free” phones, because that isn’t the issue.

Eating or putting on makeup are relatively “mindless” activities which don’t distract the brain from the major task at hand. But business calls or calls from the kids with a schedule change, or anything requiring concentration or problem-solving while driving are dangerous.

In fact, a recent University of Illinois study determined that people on a computer-simulated road trip who used even a handsfree cell phone had “significantly slower reaction times than those who didn’t chat at all.”The study’s author,Arthur Kramer, Ph.D., says “Conversations — especially on cell phones — may distract our brains enough that our eyes miss sudden changes in the field of vision.”

I’d bet most drivers who use cell phones, if being totally honest, would admit at one time or another they’d had a close call because of a distracting conversation. For everyone’s safety, the passage of legislation to ban the use of cell phones while driving would be the right thing to do.

But I guess that’s really asking a lot from this Legislature.

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