Photo of the day

With the official end of the Iraq War (not with a bang, but a whimper), Reuters has a nice set of iconic images of the war:

Caption: A resident gestures as he talks to a U.S. soldier from 2nd Brigade combat team, 82nd Airborne on patrol in Baghdad’s Adhamiya district January 5, 2008. REUTERS/Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud

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Cell Phones and Driving

You probably heard the recent news that the NTSB recommends a complete ban on cell phones while driving.  Maybe you even read this on your phone while driving.  I’ll admit to talking on my phone occasionally while driving,  but at least I feel guilty about it.  More importantly, I try and reserve it for times where the driving itself is placing minimal cognitive demands upon me.  Why?  Because that’s what matters– it has nothing to do with what you are doing with your hands.   I was listening to this being discussed on Diane Rehm the other day, and all these callers just kept calling in and saying things along the lines of: but, what about the radio?  what about talking to a person? what about eating?  Etc.  While those things can be distracting, the simple truth is they hardly compare to the cognitive demands a phone conversation places on you.  And those cognitive demands can dangerously slow down your reaction time.  I wrote about this a couple of years ago after a great summary of the issue in Salon.  I’ll excerpt the same quotes here– they’re good:

Now neuroscience is showing your mind literally isn’t on the road. The overtaxed driver’s poor brain doesn’t distinguish between a conversation that takes place on an iPhone or a Bluetooth headset. In both cases, the chatting driver is distracted, putting herself, her passengers, other drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians at risk.

Say there’s an 18-wheeler to your right, an R.V. to your left, and suddenly a call comes in from that motormouth client in Kansas City. As the client’s voice starts buzzing in your ear, the activity in the parts of your brain keeping your car in your lane declines.

“Forty percent of your attention is drawn away when you’re on the phone,” says Marcel Just, a psychologist who directs Carnegie Mellon’sCenter for Cognitive Brain Imaging. That goes for you too, Mr. Multitasker…

As long as the Model-T has been on the road, people have been conversing with the passengers in their vehicles, if only to scream at the pesky kids, “Shut up! I’m trying to drive!” But there’s a difference between talking to somebody in the car and on the phone. Most passengers in the car adjust their conversation to what’s happening on the road, quieting down when traffic gets hectic or even pointing out hazards up ahead, acting as a second set of eyes. The person on the other end of a cellphone call might not know you’re driving, much less be aware of the road conditions. “The difficulty is that the party on the other line has no sense of your driving situation and just yaks, and the driver elects to do it, too,” explains Paul Allan Green, research professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, where he leads the Driver Interface Group.

Inside a car, there can be natural lulls in the conversation of 20 or 30 seconds, and there is no awkwardness associated with it. Not so on the cellphone call, where there’s more social pressure on the driver to hold up his or her end of the conversation, if only to assure the other party that the call hasn’t been dropped. “There is all sorts of social pressure to continue the conversation and not break it off,” says Green. When a driver does stop talking to focus on the road, his caller is likely to ask, “Hey, can you hear me? Are you there?” The caller tries “to reengage the driver at the wrong time,” says Strayer.

Further, researchers find that people tend to be more chatty in a cell conversation than an in-car one. “Cellphone conversations are more intense than in-car conversation,” says Paul Atchley, professor of psychology at the University of Kansas. That intensity can be measured. Researchers in England studied drivers’ conversations with both passengers and callers. They found that people used a higher number of words per minute on cellphone conversations.

In the end, car passengers just have more skin in the game. “People in the car have their own safety at risk,” says Atchley. “It’s to their advantage to not put the driver in the dangerous situation, so we as passengers tend to edit ourselves pretty effectively.”

If you want to keep talking on the phone while driving, at least don’t pretend that it’s no more dangerous than listening to the radio or talking to a passenger.  And therefore at least be smart about it.

How doctors are like my students

From yesterday’s Times:

Hospitals and doctors’ offices, hoping to curb medical error, have invested heavily to put computers, smartphones and other devices into the hands of medical staff for instant access to patient data, drug information and case studies.

But like many cures, this solution has come with an unintended side effect: doctors and nurses can be focused on the screen and not the patient, even during moments of critical care. And they are not always doing work; examples include a neurosurgeon making personal calls during an operation, a nurse checking airfares during surgery and a poll showing that half of technicians running bypass machines had admitted texting during a procedure.

Of course, there’s a lot of good that’s being done with this technology.  Just like there’s a lot of good that comes with my students having laptops.  Was just amused at how similar this sounds to what I face in the classroom.

Bev and Racial Justice

So, a couple of years ago NC passed the Racial Justice act which allowed those sentenced to death to challenge their sentence based on statistical evidence of racial bias.  That is, they didn’t have to show that a prosecutor was specifically racially-biased in their behavior, i.e., prosecutor sending an email saying, “make sure there’s no Blacks on that damn jury!” but rather they can make an argument based on statistical evidence, i.e., isn’t it interesting that in a county that’s 40% Black, Black residents never make it onto juries in death penalty cases.  Upon winning an appeal on the basis of this act, the convicted killer has his sentence reduced to life in prison.

All good to me.  If I didn’t believe that we couldn’t learn things from the judicious use of statistics, I would be in my present job.  Alas, since NC Republicans know that racism no longer exists (or, if it does, it’s against the poor victimized white man) they took the opportunity to basically pass a repeal of the law.  Naturally, much of their rhetoric talks about letting convicted killers go free, despite the fact that the law does nothing of the sort (and, of course, the classic soft on crime).

So, as far as I’m concerned, it’s good news that NC Governor Bev Perdue finally vetoed the repeal earlier this week.  What kills me is how she went about doing it.  She kept everybody guessing as to what she would do, until she finally vetoed the bill on Tuesday.  What’s up with that?  Could she really not make up her mind?  Afraid that Republicans were going to paint her as soft on crime and letting killers go free?  (She’s got worse to worry about).  Why couldn’t she just make a forceful defense of the act.  Regardless of what Fox News viewers choose to believe, racism still exists– and very much in our criminal justice system.  I’m glad she finally did the right thing, but she certainly did it the wrong way.

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