The debate over cell phone or electronic device use in vehicles is a hot topic and makes a great discussion issue, with many opinions. As a former Human Factors in Aviation instructor, Flight Safety Investigator and General Safety Officer, I wish to provide some insight on this topic. Thirty years experience in the aviation field has taught me one thing; I would never endorse or recommend the use of any device that interferes with safe operation on the Aerodrome. The main reason is some people believe they can multi-task; that is drive and talk on the phone at the same time or worst yet, use an electronic device to text. However, when you understand how the brain functions you will also understand why we do not multi-task all that well. First of all, our minds really only process one thing at a time and we jump from thought to thought. Basically our minds are always processing information from our environment. It is a survival trait, in that we are looking for hazards to our well-being. I will call this the awareness stage and once we become aware of a hazard, we process the implications to the hazard, then we plan and act; this is done instinctively and in split seconds.
A good example would be a deer running in front of your moving vehicle. Once you see the deer (awareness) and take action (plan) your response is to brake hard or steer out of the way. We know what the implications are (collision) and we plan and act, usually without thinking. This full process (avoiding a deer), awareness, implication, plan and act, happens in less than a second. Now if you have the driver on the phone, the driver will see the deer, however, because the brain is processing verbal information (I call this “the bucket is full”) the implications do not get processed and the plan and action processing does not happen. I have personally experienced this in Winnipeg three years ago. I was picked up by a friend at the Winnipeg airport and on the drive downtown, a young lady smashed into the back of our vehicle. When she got out she said she was on the phone and did not see us. Believe it. We were there. The damaged vehicles definitely proved that. However, in my job teaching human factors in aviation, I fully understood what she was experiencing.
The next time you are driving a vehicle on the airfield, think about all the dangers involved. Taxiing aircraft, armament convoying, sweepers, fuel trucks, servicing vehicles and emergency response crews are just a few of the hazards. Think about how many times corrections are made in the safe operation of the vehicle. The visual clues are processed along with sensory information (acceleration, braking, sound) and rather than calling it driving, we are actually operating in a collision avoidance regime. Failing to process information on our surroundings for only a short time could lead to a collision with another vehicle or aircraft. This is the main reason for posted speed restrictions on the ramp. The faster we drive the less reaction time we have to a hazard. It is for this reason that when a person talks on the phone they are not fully processing the visual clues, in that they do not realize implications of danger and fail to take appropriate actions. Some argue that it is no different than talking to a fellow passenger. I disagree. The passengers see most of what you see and often will alert you to any dangers. A person on the phone with you sees nothing and is therefore unable to warn you. When you are listening or talking on a phone, you are processing verbal information (not driving information) and when you finally “clue in” it is often too late. What are the driving signs of “clue out”? Ask any experienced safety officer. Driving becomes erratic and speed limits are exceeded without knowing it. Other indicators include sudden stops, tail gating, swerving and crossing active runways without a clearance.
The message is simple; the operation of a motor vehicle on the aerodrome requires the full attention of the driver in his or her surroundings. Using a cell phone, blackberry and other electronic devices substantially increases your risk for an accident. The safety of operators, passengers, pedestrians and the preservation of resources rely on drivers staying focused, alert to hazards and to take appropriate action to prevent collisions.