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Study Confirms Mobile Phones Distract Drivers 439

Posted by kdawson
from the hang-up-and-drive dept.
An anonymous reader notes a Reuters report of a study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, confirming that Mobile phone calls distract drivers far more than even the chattiest passenger, causing drivers to follow too closely and miss exits. California's ban on using a handheld cell phone while driving, which went into effect last summer, is looking less than fully effective. A handful of other states have instituted similar bans, but none has forbidden driving while talking on a cell phone at all. "Using a hands-free device does not make things better and the researchers believe they know why — passengers act as a second set of eyes, shutting up or sometimes even helping when they see the driver needs to make a maneuver."
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Study Confirms Mobile Phones Distract Drivers

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  • Duh (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 02, 2008 @06:52PM (#25967625)

    We needed a study to figure that out? : - )

  • by stei7766 (1359091) on Tuesday December 02, 2008 @06:53PM (#25967627)

    What I've always wondered is if the increased distraction a cell phone brings vs. a passenger has something to do with the brain activity of talking on a cell vs. in person.

    I'm no neurologist but I've noticed that while talking on a phone I have a tendency to imagine that person and their expressions, reactions, etc. Perhaps this results in the use of more brain "power" to use a cell than talk to a person?

    Anyone know of any studies using fMRI or the like which suggest such a thing?

  • Insurance (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Samschnooks (1415697) on Tuesday December 02, 2008 @06:53PM (#25967635)
    Several years ago (2001), I caused a crash. There were others in the car all taking. It distracted me - I cannot multi task at all. I can't even listen to the radio when I'm driving in heavy traffic. Anyway, when I talked to the insurance company the first thing they asked me was "Were you on a cell phone?" (I didn't own one.) And "Was the other driver on a cell phone?"

    I think the insurance companies have known this all along but never shared the data.

  • by LockeOnLogic (723968) on Tuesday December 02, 2008 @07:06PM (#25967839)

    The difference between a cell phone conversation and passenger conversation is due to the fact that the passenger is in the vehicle and knows what the traffic conditions are like, and they help the driver by reminding them of where to take an exit and pointing out hazards"

    Passengers do probably have a small assistant role in the car like "hey would you change the cd?" ect... but that doesn't fully explain the deficit.

    Reaction times and ability to stay in the lane are altered, something the passenger has little to do with. The big reason there is less of an affect on driving ability from passengers is that social rules of phone conversations and in person conversations place a different demand on the drivers.

    Next time you are talking on the phone, try not talking for maybe 10 seconds. Now try it in the car with a passenger. Notice that in the phone conversation the silence is very awkward and jarring? While in person it feels more or less normal. This illustrates that the different social demands of different types of conversation. It's not that they help by actively doing much, it's that they can shut up and let you drive because they are also aware of the need to perform the task at hand!

  • by holophrastic (221104) on Tuesday December 02, 2008 @07:08PM (#25967853)

    No kidding phones are a distraction. Everything and anything is a distraction. No kidding it's more dangerous to drive with a phone than without a phone. It's more dangerous to drive with a book on your lap than without one.

    But here's the thing. I drive year-round. I drive often, and I drive frequently. I dirve short and long distances. I drive in blizzards, at night. I drive in fog. I drive in rain. Each of these is way more dangerous than driving on a nice day with dry roads and infinite visibility.

    So here's my question. If you, or anyone else, is going to say that I can't drive with the phone because the risk is too high on the sunny day, then you're going to have to say that I can't drive in a blizzard at all. There are certainly limits to my driving ability. Quite frankly, in the blizzard, at night, I'm not on the phone, I turn off the radio, and I turn off the fan. You want to say that I can't be on the phone in the blizzard at night on ice? You'll get no argument from me there.

    Incidentally, the whole hands-free thing is also garbage -- for other logical reasons. I drive an automatic transmission. I have one hand on the steering wheel to steer, and one foot on the pedals. My other hand is available for radio and phone and picking my nose -- every driver's right. If I were to drive a standard transmission, I'd have one hand on the steering wheel, one on the gear shift, on foot on the pedals, and one foot on the clutch -- and I'd have to co-ordinate ALL FOUR limbs in stop-and-go traffic. Again, if you want to say that I can't be holding the phone while driving a manual transmission, you'll get no argument from me -- there are limits to the number of hands that I have. But if you're going to let me drive a manual transmission, then you can't say that I lack the second hand for a phone while driving an automatic transmission.

    Look, no one's saying that it's safer to drive with a phone. Let's say that driving with a phone is like driving with 0.079% blood-alcohol level. Drinking and driving is perfectly legal. Driving while drunk is not, and legally drunk is 0.08% blood-alcohol. So, if the phone equals 0.079% blood-alcohol, and you want to say that I can't drive with a phone unless I'm completely sober, you'll get little argument from me.

    Ultimately, it comes down to this in all of those cases. You're not going to say that I can only drive when everything is perfect and there are no dangers and no increased risk of any kind. That'd mean clear sky, visibility, no rain, no ice, no snow, no fog, no phone, to alcohol, no radio, no itch behind my left ear, no fatigue, no hunger, no bowel, no bladder, no boredom, no excitement. You're going to have to accept some level of risk. Do you need a road-sign saying "use at your own risk"? Do you need something on the form of your licence saying "you accept a level of increased risk"?

    You're going to have to accept that driving is more dangerous than not driving, and you're going to have to accept a certain level of fluctuation and buffer. Air-bags and seat-belts increased the risk by decreasing the danger (people drive faster when they feel secure).

    Incidentally, I'm all for improving the safety of phone use while driving. Teach drivers how to drive with phones. Make it another class of licence, like motorcycle. Teach drivers to physically drop the phone when something happens on the road.

  • Just don't answer (Score:2, Interesting)

    by LithiumX (717017) on Tuesday December 02, 2008 @07:12PM (#25967919)
    This is why I more or less ignore my cell phone when I'm driving - especially if traffic is tight, complicated, or even just "weird" that day. If it rings, I'll get it when I get the chance.

    Most of the people I know who disagree with this tend to either be the same ones who insist they can drive with a few drinks in them (and some of them can, which doesn't make it any less dumb), or who are terminally hooked on their Crackberries and have to respond to every email and call immediately.

    Even good drivers tend to drive a bit more like a crackhead when they're on the phone - which is why I simply refrain from it.
  • by holophrastic (221104) on Tuesday December 02, 2008 @07:14PM (#25967951)

    Welcome to the untrained. People are stupid; you need to teach them how to be smart. It also helps if while you're tolking to them on the phone, you don't use garden-path sentence structures, ambiguous grammar formations, metaphors and slang. Each of those requires a language buffer on the part of the listener, and often a reparsing delay before the sentence can be understood on the second pass. But it's supposed to be up to the driver to divert attention appropriately, as the situation and their strength allow. Prioritizing the driving is a simple as ignoring the conversation when required.

  • by Lumpy (12016) on Tuesday December 02, 2008 @07:18PM (#25968021) Homepage

    Cite proof. I keep hearing the speeding advocates toute this but they never EVER reference anything that shows this supposed trend.

  • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Tuesday December 02, 2008 @07:50PM (#25968457) Homepage Journal

    Passengers generally know it is in their interest not to distract the driver. The person on the other end of the phone conversation is not at risk so they talk about anything at all.

    Basically all of these "compared to passengers" arguments are null and void when it comes to children in the backseat. Should we ban driving with children in the car? They won't help with directions or know not to distract the driver.

    A very young baby will either sleep or need attention which requires the vehicle to be stopped. A two or three year old will spend their time commenting on cars, trees, people etc. My son (now six) just wants to play 24/7 on his DS.

    On the whole I find children less distracting than adults.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 02, 2008 @07:56PM (#25968535)

    Years ago, before any study came out about this, I started thinking about this apparent conundrum: how is talking to passengers safer than talking to somebody on a phone? After all, you're talking to somebody, so why should it matter. Well, it got me thinking along the same lines.

    So, I told myself that the next time somebody calls me when I'm driving, that I would treat that person as if they were a passenger in my car and not on a cell phone. The difference was amazing. For about 80% of conversation, I was completely ignoring the caller and was instead focused on driving (just as you would with a passenger in a the car). The other 20% of the time, I kept asking the caller to repeat themselves since I didn't catch anything they were saying. They eventually grew frustrated and hanged up on me.

    Once I did this, I realize that talking an a cell phone is a *huge* distraction. I'm actually amazed we don't have more accidents daily because of cell phone than we do.

    I still answer my phone when I drive, but don't expect to have much of a conversation with me since I probably won't be listening anyways.

  • by blahplusplus (757119) * on Tuesday December 02, 2008 @08:09PM (#25968711)

    ... this all comes back to the fact that we have a limited amount of attention and the more we spend it focusing on conversation and thinking about what is being talked about (our minds eye being 'elsewhere') the less we are focused on our environmental surroundings, we're increasing the attention resolution for conversation on the phone while decreasing our attention to the surrounding environment.

    This happens even without a phone, I remember driving and having something fall on my lap, just the momentary lapse of your mind focusing on something other then what you're doing takes your ability to focus attention on the environmental changes as needed. I remember almost hitting someone, even though just a few seconds before everything was clear. After that I promised myself never again would I ever change the focus of my attention. It's just too dangerous a lot of the time, in heavy traffic / slowed to a crawl, I don't mind if people are on their phones when traffic is going to be at a dead stop for a while but outside of that, I wouldn't personally.

    It's the same thing - using your mind to assess the situation intelligently, it applies to everthing - if you exercise and don't overeat you won't get fat (barring extenuating circumstances like disease, etc).

    Personally I think anyone who's a phone junky really needs to experience what it's like to have a near miss accident, there's nothing like a near miss to change your thinking about driving forever IMHO. I'm glad my near miss never hurt anyone, and it certainly smartens you up afterwards. For the people who say "eh I'll risk it", I just hope you don't one day end up regretting it.

  • by lgw (121541) on Tuesday December 02, 2008 @08:48PM (#25969181) Journal

    I'm still amazed at the idea that any phone call needs to be answered *now*, and not in 15 minutes. Whatever it is, 15 minutes won't matter that much. People have conditioned themselves to treat a phone call as a higher priority than their own survival. Society really did funtion just fine before cell phones!

  • by Martin Blank (154261) on Tuesday December 02, 2008 @09:24PM (#25969539) Journal

    In California, no person under the age of 18 may use a cell phone while driving for any purpose (other than calling 911). There are no exceptions for hands-free devices. If they're not calling 911, they have to pull off the road to make the call. I can see some logic in requiring this also for those who are 18 or older but have their driver's license for less than, say, two years.

  • by Maxo-Texas (864189) on Tuesday December 02, 2008 @11:38PM (#25970877)

    And... ability in the world being distributed on a bell curve, some of these people are correct.

    Some people can drive at .08 drunk better than many other people can drive sober.
    Some people can drive while talking on the cell phone better than many other people drive on their best day.

    At some level of drunkenness, every one drives worse than the worst sober driver.
    For some kinds of cell phone conversations, everyone drives worse than the worst sober driver.

    I've driven for years with a cell phone with no problem. It's especially nice on cross state trips.

    I almost T-Boned a lady one morning when I was not on the cell phone because she was clearly distracted by her cell phone- she was looking at me in horror holding her phone up to her head as I braked from about 35mpg to a stop less than 10 feet from her.

    I almost drove into a ditch (also while not on the phone) about 15 years ago when a person gave me very bad news right as we were coming up to a turn in the road.

    Life is complicated and we get ham-handed lowest common denominator laws.

    Most people I know can probably drive fine at .10. But .12 is very close to .10. And most people I know are solidly drunk at .12. I think that the .08 rule is really about stopping the .12 people from getting on the road (and about MADD moms going overboard).

  • by tfoss (203340) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @02:01AM (#25972067)

    Wouldn't you think that some RESEARCH and TESTING had taken place before enacting this law?

    There has been plenty of research and testing that has shown that hands-free systems don't decrease the risk from cell-phone mediated distracted driving. The issue is that people who write laws are not the people who are familiar with such research, you only hope that they can task some staffers to look into it. In this particular instance that communication simply got dropped. My dad does a lot of work on distracted driving [], and a friend of mine was working in the office of a state senator back a few years ago when the law was being worked on. I tried to connect him with my dad so that the useful information could make its way into the bill, but my friend got re-tasked to another project and that conduit was lost. Given the law that got passed, it's clear that no other source of useful information made it's way into the legislature in its place.

    Sausage and laws and all that...


  • by zoney_ie (740061) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @07:11AM (#25973423)

    Having been on both German autobahns and Irish and British motorways and US highways, I can safely say the biggest difference of all is that far less people drive like morons on German roads. I don't need any studies to explain why the Irish situation is so bad either when we have so many people on the roads who haven't sat a test ("provisional licence" supposed to be for learning to drive, and people who got "free" licences in 1980 or so last time there was a testing backlog). That's for starters (there are a host of other reasons that need little analysis to see their contribution to traffic mayhem).

    In the US I didn't feel particularly safe on the highways, and there was a much bigger emphasis on "the bigger the vehicle the more I can act as if I am crash-proof" - the trucks in particular were road-hogs. The 55 mph limit is stupidly low of course, meaning that there is a lot of problems caused between faster drivers and slower ones (still no excuse for the maniacs driving in excess of 70mph or so).

    Germany we encountered only two people trying to get everyone killed in half a week of driving well over 1000km, whereas on a single 100km trip on Irish motorways you will meet at least a dozen people trying to get everyone killed (tailgating and crazy lane-switches are exceedingly common).

    A side note about German Autobahns though - it's disturbing how the hyper-fast travel distorts perceptions. At 180km/h it eventually feels just like the normal Irish limit of 120km/h. You slow down on an exit and think you are down to 50km/h for the curve (the Autobahn junctions often were pretty compact), and realise you're still 100km/h!

    I think 120km/h limit as in Ireland is reasonable for two lane motorway. Where there are three lanes, it would perhaps be possible to allow the outer lane (next the median) to have 150km/h or so (don't know about elsewhere, but our new motorways in Ireland have a design speed of 160km/h). Two lane unrestricted autobahn sections in Germany were a bit hairy between the 80km/h trucks/buses, the 120 km/h normal drivers, and the people wanting to make full use of the lack of speed limits. Talk about lane changing!!!

"It is better to have tried and failed than to have failed to try, but the result's the same." - Mike Dennison