After decades of marriage, Terry and Debbie Buchen learned to work through various marital issues. Then something new came between them — his cellphone.
Mr. Buchen, 62, couldn’t put it down while driving. The first time he sent e-mail messages from behind the wheel, he drove his BMW S.U.V. into a ditch on a deserted stretch of road.
He was alone and driving slowly, and he wasn’t injured. Still, the incident was “very scary,” his wife said.
Mr. Buchen knew he had a to make a choice between his habit and marital bliss.
“I chose my wife,” he said. But then Mr. Buchen, an agronomist for golf courses, asked for a compromise: he asked her to drive when they were together so he could stay connected with clients. That didn’t fly. “If looks could kill,” he said.
For all the conversations about distracted driving playing out in statehouses and on talk shows, the most heated discussions, and the ones with the most lasting impact, may be happening between family members and friends.
Such disputes are an extension of a longstanding source of tension — sometimes light, other times more antagonistic — between drivers and their self-appointed watchdogs.
It’s just that now, the back-seat driver is going after the BlackBerry.
These critics say such devices not only put lives at risk, but also steal attention from passengers hoping for some quality catch-up time. The multitaskers counter with the view that they must, and like, to tend to social and work demands.
Safety advocates who favor outlawing multitasking behind the wheel say the new generation of back-seat hawks may be playing a crucial role in changing the culture — much as they did in helping enforce seat belt laws — in a way these advocates say laws alone may not be able to.
In a survey conducted this year of 2,501 people, the AAA Foundation for Highway Safety found that 48 percent of people worry about a friend or family member driving unsafely. Of those people, 19 percent said the cause of their concern was multitasking behind the wheel.
Some drivers say that the second-guessing is unnecessary because of their ability to handle driving and other tasks.
“I barely even look at my phone when I text,” said Sarah Edwards, 29, a customer service representative in Cleveland.
Her close friend, Amy Macauley, 32, isn’t convinced. “We’ve talked about this,” Ms. Macauley said. “I’ve cited vague statistics about how dangerous it is, but she doesn’t pay attention.”
She brings a particular sensitivity to the discussion. Her sister and the husband of a close friend died from crash injuries, and her brother-in-law was seriously injured in a car accident.
“I know things can change in an instant when someone is behind the wheel,” Ms. Macauley said. To her, talking on the phone or texting while driving, unless it’s an emergency, is “completely gross.”
People like Ms. Macauley are finding more ammunition to argue their side.
Studies show that people who talk on the phone while driving face four times as great a crash risk as those who do not. The risk is considerably higher for motorists who text.
The federal government estimates that at any given time about 11 percent of drivers, or about two million people, are talking on a cellphone.
Many of them are most likely doing so alone. Up to 85 percent of drivers have no passenger with them in the car, estimates the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
But when an adult passenger is present, the Transportation Institute found, he or she can enhance safety — and reduce crash risk by up to 50 percent — by keeping eyes on the road, or encouraging safer behavior.
That means that a friend or family member cajoling a motorist to put down the phone can provide a safety advantage, as long as the disagreement itself doesn’t escalate to the point of distraction.For all the evidence about the dangers of distracted driving, multitaskers say there are powerful forces — both social and economic — that make it hard to put their devices down.
A 2008 poll taken by Nationwide Insurance of 1,500 motorists found that 48 percent of people who multitasked behind the wheel did so because they felt an urgent need to address an issue pertaining to school or work; 33 percent said they felt pressure to stay connected socially.
That pressure may affect some people more than others. An emerging body of science suggests that there are some people who are more likely to be drawn to multitasking — behind the wheel or otherwise — because of the way their brains are wired.
Clifford Nass, a co-director of an automotive research laboratory at Stanford University, said some researchers had labeled such heavy multitaskers as “explorers” because they enjoyed the constant hunt for information — whether it pertained to work, entertainment or social life.
Vic Gideon, 48, a hospital executive from Cleveland, says he feels the call of his device for social and work purposes, even when behind the wheel and even when his family, including his four children, are in the car.
“Even if I’m going 60 miles an hour, I feel the need to check it,” said Mr. Gideon, referring to his phone. “It might be spam, a wrong number, whatever. But who cares? My cell vibrates. I respond.”
Mr. Gideon said it had created tension. “My wife tells me I don’t know how to drive,” he said. “And then, of course, not only do I not know how to drive, but I don’t know how to drive safely. I believe I’m being careful.”
The Nationwide Insurance poll found that both men and women were avid multitaskers. About 85 percent of female drivers said they multitasked, compared with 78 percent of male drivers.
Grace Andrews, 49, a corporate consultant in Melrose, Mass., is the one taking heat in her family. Her husband, Joe Nardone, 44, and her son, Colby Andrews, 12, despise her incessant use of the phone.
“I honestly do laugh at myself all the time,” says Ms. Andrews. “Is it really possible that I am talking on the phone, e-mailing and driving with my knees simultaneously?”
Her husband and son tell her she cares more about the phone than about them, and that she puts herself and others at risk.
“I could never imagine that we would get to this stage — that this is the stuff we would fight about,” she said.
—Joan Raymond contributed reporting.