Office driver

In recent years, handsfree systems, and car-mounted systems, have become commonplace to support mobile phone conversations in cars. These systems are motivated in terms of traffic safety, in comparison to the mere use of handheld phones to make and receive calls while driving. The safety of mobile phoning whilst driving has become a central topic in the public debate and among legislators. It has been subject to legislation in many countries around the world (McEvoy et al., 2005). Despite legislations, observational studies reveal that phones are still being used in cars (McD Taylor, Bennet, Carter and Garewal, 2003; Johal, Napier, Britt-Compton and Marshall, 2005). The fact that people talk while driving, and the safety problems this might infer, has received a significant amount of attention from researchers. As early as 1969, well before the widespread use of mobile phones, a psychological study aimed at understanding the effect telephoning had on driving, was published (Brown, Tickner and Simmonds, 1969). Drivers were given logical problems which they needed to respond to over a telephone connection, while driving a car. Since then, numerous studies using similar cognitive perspectives have been presented. (e.g. McKnight and McKnight, 1993; Manalavan, Samar, Schneider, Kiesler and Siewiorek, 2002; Alm and Nilsson, 1995; Fairclough, Ashby, Ross and Parkes, 1991; Reed and Green, 1999; Brookhuis, de Vries and de Waard, 1991). The topic has been addressed using controlled experiments where the driver takes part in staged conversations. The studies support arguments that mobile phone use dramatically increases the cognitive load of the driver, which multiply the risks for accidents. The increase on drivers’ attention is either explained by the need to handle the phone device per se, or by the demand to handle the conversation.
However, we argue that these conclusions are based on theoretical and methodological assumptions that are questionable from a sociological approach. First, traffic safety and mobile phone use is approached from a cognitive perspective. We argue that safe driving is not only about the responsibility for the individual driver. Traffic is a social activity (Juhlin, 1999) where risks are handled in collaboration. Mobile phone talk is a social activity taking place in this context. Second, safety is not only a concept which draws upon traffic theory and research. It is of practical and everyday concern for drivers, and as such has to be investigated in real use situations. Third, the emphasis to control the data collection in earlier research has raised concerns about the validity of these experiments (Goodman, Tijerina, Bents and Wierwille, 1999). ”The relationship between the intelligence test Q&A dialogues and the content of normal cellular communication is unknown. […] A better understanding of the nature of actual cellular telephone communications in business and private calls is sorely needed.” (ibid.).

In this project, we approach the problem of mobile phone use in cars from a perspective which is different from what is applied in previous work. By using an ethnographic approach, and study naturally occurring mobile phone use in cars, we can learn new things about how drivers fit mobile phone use with ‘car use’, to accomplish safe driving. Similar to the topic in the experimental studies, we focus particularly on the use of the phone alongside the manoeuvring of the car. Further, we specifically focus on the unfolding moment-by-moment activities when driving in complex traffic situations, where the demand on the driver to manoeuvre and coordinate the movement with others is high. The detailed level of the analysis provides insights on how this ‘work’ is concurrently and collaboratively organised. We show how the drivers rely on a number of resources to adapt talk to the driving situation. First, we show that the traffic situation is made visible in the phone conversation. This is done when the traffic situation becomes more complex, and the driver puts increased focus on the manoeuvring of the car. Second, drivers adjust their phone handling to collaboration in traffic. We call these strategies, by which the driver fit the involvement with the phone with the driving and vice versa, interactional adaptation. Interactional adaptation includes both interaction with people in the immediate surrounding and with the remote people on the phone, as well as interaction with the technologies at hand such as the car and the phone. We discuss how the ethnographic approach is crucial to understand driving and mobile phone use in context. We end with a discussion of the benefits and limitations of using this method to understanding mobile phone use and driving.


Esbjörnsson, M., Juhlin, O. and Weilenmann, A. (2007). Drivers Using Mobile Phones in Traffic: An Ethnographic Study of Interactional Adaptation. To appear in International Journal of Human Computer Interaction, Special issue on: In-Use, In-Situ: Extending Field Research Methods. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Vol. 22, Issue 1, pp. 39-60.

Esbjörnsson, M. (2005). Enhanced Social Interaction in Traffic. PhD thesis. Studies in Applied Information Technology. IT University of Göteborg.
[PhD thesis site]

Esbjörnsson, M. and Weilenmann, A. (2005). Mobile Phone Talk in Context. In Proceedings of Context’2005 – The 5th International and Interdisciplinary Conference Modeling and Using Context. Springer Verlag, pp 140-154.
[PDF] – Full paper

Esbjörnsson, M. and Juhlin, O. (2003). Combining mobile phone conversations and driving- studying a mundane activity in its naturalistic setting. In (ed. Patten, C.J.D) Vetenskaplig rapportsamling. Publikation 2003:92. Vägverket, Borlänge.
[PDF] – Report

Esbjörnsson, M. and Juhlin, O. (2003). Combining Mobile Phone Conversations and Driving – Studying a Mundane Activity in its Naturalistic Setting. In Proceedings of ITS’2003 – the 7th World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems. Ertico. CD-ROM.
[PDF] – Full paper
[PDF] – Presentation

Esbjörnsson, M. (2002). Application Oriented Research on Leisure- and Work-Activities in a Truly Mobile Setting. In Conference supplement of CSCW’02 – ACM 2002 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. ACM Press, pp 29-30.
[PDF] – Short paper (doctoral colloquium)
[PPT] – Presentation

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