Talking Heads

Driving to Distraction: We’ve all noticed greater coverage in the media lately regarding the increasing number of automotive accidents attributed to the use of cell phones while driving — so what about talking while flying? (And hey, I’m not even implying the use of a cell phone while flying!) It turns out, there’s some bad news, but there’s more good news. Have a look…

You don’t have to be Italian to gesticulate when you talk. If you watch almost anybody on the phone who is discussing anything even remotely engaging, what happens? They’ll be making short choppy motions with their fingers, broad sweeping motions with their arms, or anything in between. It’s not like the person on the other end can see it, after all, so why bother? I’ll tell you why — because our tribal brains are wired that way. We have a vocal element to oral communication, and also a dynamic physical element. For each moment, our mental ‘bandwidth’ has only so much set aside for what we say on the phone — and a little left over for everything else.

First, The BAD News
We’ve probably all seen someone doodling on a pad of paper while talking, and having no recollection of what they scribbled while most of their mind was otherwise engaged. Or more apropos still, telephone conversations can be so engrossing that you might not realize a co-worker just entered the room. Our eyes see, but the image never registers.

Why it Matters: Drivers have sailed right through red lights at intersections! …or so the New England Journal of Medicine would have us believe. (I trust them.)

So, what new brain lobe do pilots sprout that allows them to get away with all these tasks at the same time — in three dimensions — while you can become ‘reckless and inattentive’ on the ground, in just two?! How can we do it? OK, I’ll tell you how. (Bring forth the GOOD news!)

Why It Works For Us
First off, we don’t get too far off the subject (if we’re not misusing the radio, that is) while flying: When we speak on the radio, we’re usually talking about what we’re doing, right then and right there.

Example: ‘At Montgomery, Cessna 32 Bravo, right downwind 32 abeam the numbers, Montgomery’. If anything, it cements our awareness of where we are and what we’re doing! (Note the contrast between this and: ‘Hi honey, it’s me. Listen, I’m running behind. Could you be a sweetie and call Bob and tell him I’ll be about twenty minutes late? What? Oh, sure, asparagus is fine. It’s Bill who’s allergic, not Bob. No, uh listen, I’m about to land, and I’ve gotta call the fuel truck. OK, love you too. That’s weird… What’s that scraping noise … and why are we stopping so quickly?’) Get the picture?

Second, when we talk on the radio, we basically have a license to be rude (well, curt, anyway). Actually, being more verbose than absolutely necessary is what’s considered rude. And if we’re busy, we fly first, talk later — or perhaps say ‘unable’. Of course, that push-to-talk switch helps and we’re not diverting our attention to a dial pad to punch in phone numbers. And we are usually at least a few thousand yards from the next driver…

The bottom line is that to stay safe while talking and flying — stick to the business of flying … no one care’s about Bill’s problem with asparagus, anyway.