Study: Cell phones distract drivers more than passengers do

Study: Cell phones distract drivers more than passengers do

Summary: According to a new study, it's more distracting to have Paris Hilton's Sidekick in the car than it is to have Paris herself.Sorry, Paris.

TOPICS: Mobility, Telcos

Paris HiltonAccording to a new study, it's more distracting to have Paris Hilton's Sidekick in the car than it is to have Paris herself.

Sorry, Paris.

Cell phones distract car drivers more than talkative passengers -- and hands-free devices don't make for safer driving, according to a recent Reuters report on a new study published by the Journal of Experimential Psychology: Applied.

Worse, drivers who use mobile phones are as impaired as those who are legally drunk.

Makes you think twice about checking that voicemail, doesn't it? That's definitely not "hot."

According to PC World, University of Utah researchers used a series of driving-simulation tests to determine that hands-free gadgets such as a Bluetooth headset are just as distracting as holding a phone to your ear. Talking on a cell phone slowed the reaction times of adult drivers aged 18 to 49 to those of senior citizens, according to the study.

So why aren't passengers as bad? Apparently, even the chattiest of companions can point out hazards or remind drivers of upcoming exits, and are more likely to change a conversation (i.e. shutting up or talking less) when driving conditions change. In other words, because they're in the car, they're more likely to notice that the driver needs to focus. After all, their life is in the driver's hands, too.

According to the report:

Two videos from the study show the dangers of driving while phone-chatting. In one, drivers using a hands-free device to talk on the phone inadvertently pass a highway exit that they had been instructed to take. In another, the drivers aren’t on the phone, but rather are chatting with a passenger. These drivers successfully take the rest-area exit because their passengers alert them to do so.

This research reinforces earlier reports that just because you're chatting hands-free doesn't mean your driving won't suffer -- although several states have enacted such laws.

So just how safe are hands-free devices, really? And should we ban vehicular cell phones use altogether? What about emergencies? Tell us your thoughts in TalkBack.

Topics: Mobility, Telcos

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • This study proves nothing

    Other than people are inheriently stupid. It would then become the responsibility (yes, responsibility..something we all dont want to take on these days) to know when to hang up/disconnect the call depending on driving conditions.

    All this does is going to push as lame anecdotal evidence to the state/federal lawmakers to ban cell phones - thus causing those who can use them properly to be inconvenienced - for the sake of stupidity. Lets have some formal education on the proper use and ettiquite of a cellular phone - that would be a better place to start.

    Its simple - if road conditions require extra special attention (traffic, weather, etc) - dont talk - otherwise, go for it IF you know you can handle both tasks. Its really no different than a passenger or fiddling with the radio(s), just the driver bears more of that dreaded "R" word.
    • I can drive safely at .08 BAC

      Hell, .10.
      So why should I be inconvenienced - for the sake of stupidity.

      And while we are at it, who determines if either of us is safe? Certification of some sort?
      • Well at .08 its still legal...

        Whereas .10 you would be legally intoxicated. These are two completely different points - you cannot just "shut off" being drunk like you can a phone conversation. Thats the difference.

        In fact I would venture a guess that more driver negligance happens over time - so yes there should be a certification, its called a drivers licence and it should be required to re-take the exam and/or behind the wheel test every so often (maybe every other renewal) rather than just pay a fee. This would keep the "little" things in the front of drivers minds. Turn signals and the use of common sense are not an option.

        But thanks for playing anyway... drunk driving is NOT equal to talking on a cell phone in a responsible manner. Next?
        • People driving while using a cell phone

          are as dangerous as someone who is legally drunk. And they don't turn off the device, so that part of your argument is BS. If they did, it wouldn't be a problem.

          Now, 'legally intoxicated' is an arbitrary definition. Like I stated, I'm fine at .10, just like our friend here states he is 'fine' talking on a cell while driving. So 'legal' and 'safe' have little to do with one another.

          But thanks for playing. Now try thinking.

          Both activities have been shown to cause problems while driving, and some arbitrary line in the sand must be drawn to prevent those who can't handle it from hurting those around them. Since those who can't handle it can't make the distinction (and many who say they can really can't), what is wrong with taking preventative measures?
          • Ok dude

            You just restated your lame point that didnt hold water in the first place.

            "Now, 'legally intoxicated' is an arbitrary definition. Like I stated, I'm fine at .10, just like our friend here states he is 'fine' talking on a cell while driving. So 'legal' and 'safe' have little to do with one another."

            Well, no legally intoxicated is NOT arbitrary - its set in most states at .08BAC. Period. Dot. No exceptions. YOU may be fine at .10 - but I am curious how you arrived at that number - as Im sure your states trooper would too - even still you cannot just TURN OFF being drunk, that lingers and disapates at a finite rate - Cell phone users have the ability to end that call at anytime. Thats my point.
          • A line in the sand was drawn though..

            .. at .08% BAC. Sooooo, where is the line with talking on the phone while driving? You say - easy, just quit using the phone.

            That's odd, as you're saying that 'sometimes' it's safe for you to talk on the phone, sometimes not. How about driving? Sometimes it's safe, sometimes not. Just pull over, right?

            The line in the sand needs to be drawn for the oblivious drivers that are cruising in the fast lane with the left-hand blinker on. While it may be inconvenient to some of us, the majority of cell-phone using drivers seem to be oblivious to where they're at, let alone present driving conditions.
          • BAC Limits

            Hi, JT82.

            You said:

            [i]Well, no legally intoxicated is NOT arbitrary - its set [b]in most states[/b] at .08BAC. Period. [/i]

            [b]That's[/b] the point: It's arbitrary in the sense that different states have different limits. The states decide where to draw the line.

            And I don't think you're understanding the meaning of "legally drunk", either. According to this study, a person who's using a cell phone is judgment-impaired while they're using it. They thus don't have the [i]judgment[/i] to know when to turn the call off. This is in contrast to a live conversation in the car, where the person you're talking to has situational awareness of your surroundings.

            Another thing: This [i]isn't[/i] anecdotal evidence. They conducted experiments to test driving ability under different conditions. Anecdotal evidence is "I heard that when you're talking on a cell phone, it's really dangerous", or, "My friend was talking on his cell phone and he had a terrible wreck." No, my friends, this is [i]empirical[/i] evidence we're dealing with here. Completely different. You might have an issue with the study methodology, but it's by no means anecdotal evidence.
    • How about this then?

      I say we should at least ban cell phones in the passing lane. I can't count how many "safe drivers" are in the left lane doing 40 mph cuz they want to be "safe". And how nice it is with nobody in front of them....cuz everyone is BEHIND YOU!
      • And thats driver negligance at its finest!

        Yes i cant tell you how many times ive seen that and it irritates me. However, I use my cell phone responsibly - as Im sure many others do as well. If conditions need extra attention, I discontinue use of them - just like I do the radio in specific situations. Education would and could fix this - and outright ban would not. Again back to enforcement of it would become nearly imposible.
    • Cell phone while driving license?

      How about requiring that you pass a test to earn the right to use a Cell phone while driving. This could be added to the standard drivers test with time. However, for those who already have licenses maybe we should require that they pass a test before they are allowed to talk and drive.

      To back this up there will need to be harsher fines for anyone in an accident that was using a cell phone at the time. With phone records it should be easy to confirm such a thing.
      • You Can Either Drive Safely, Or You Can't

        Hi, T1Oracle.

        You said:

        [i]How about requiring that you pass a test to earn the right to use a Cell phone while driving.[/i]

        No disrespect intended, but a driving test to make sure you can drive safely while talking on the phone makes no sense. How about a driving test to make sure you can drive after pounding down a few shots of tequila and a beer, then?

        Laws aren't passed for the special cases. They're passed for the majority. And the data in this case appears to be clear: The majority is clearly impaired while driving with a cell phone -- [i]even if they can't perceive it themselves[/i].

        As for a cell phone ban: Sure, it's enforceable. It's a technology problem, not a law enforcement problem. <a href="">Here's</a> a possible technological fix. Basically, it detects when a phone is moving at vehicle speeds and won't let a call come in. The same kind of technology could be used to prevent calls from going either way.

        In the short term, I agree with you about penalties for using a cell phone when an accident occurs. The person should be given heightened penalties, just as they would if they were drinking.
        • Beer is different

          We have already succeeded in convincing people not to drink and drive. Convincing them not to talk on a phone and drive may be harder than prohibition. If you design the phones to disallow it then hacks will be made available. Furthermore, legislators are likely the worst offenders.

          People are addicted to communicating at every possible moment. Overcoming that impulse will not be easy.

          If it cannot be banned successfully tomorrow, then we should focus on at least making the situation safer by tomorrow.
        • poor solution

          "Basically, it detects when a phone is moving at vehicle speeds and won't let a call come in."

          So passengers can't use their phone. You also can't use a phone on a bus or a train.
          • I think that's right.

            [i]So passengers can't use their phone. You also can't use a phone on a bus or a train.[/i]

            I think you're right about that. That's an obvious flaw in the system. Unfortunately, I don't know how you'd make a phone that could tell that the person talking on the phone was also driving. I suppose it [i]might[/i] be technologically possible to put some kind of short-range interference device in the driver's seat, but I can't be sure of that. If nothing else, it's an interesting technical problem.

            Gmail has an interesting feature you can enable: After a certain time of night, you can have it prompt you for math problems (of a difficulty you specify) before it allows you to send an e-mail. I think it's called Gmail Goggles or something like that. The point of it, obviously, is to keep you from sending e-mails when you don't have the mental capacity to exercise good judgment. I'm thinking something similar might work for phones.

            Just a possibility. :)
      • Who would issue the test>

        Rights aren't earned, and they certainly are not bestowed by the government. If you want to suggest yet another point at which we peons should become subjects of our own gov't, you should say, "...pass a test to earn the *privilege* to use..." I would still disagree with you.

        Harry Truman once said, "if you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen". If you can't take the danger, stay off the highway.

        Blaming cell-phone usage is just yet another scapegoat to escape personal responsibility. I was taught, forget what the other drivers are supposed to be doing, pay attention to what actually is happening around you. There are plenty of drivers out there who don't even have a cell phone in the car, and yet are so clueless to the realities of the road around them that they present a danger to everyone else.
        The demon isn't the cell phone; it's the inattentive driver.
    • Throw them in jail

      The closest I have come to death is walking across the street in NYC, and there have been many close calls. Every single time since their advent the depicable driver culprit has been drunk on their cell phone.

      There is no question that it is drunken driving, with or without a headset, and should carry the same penalties. However, here in NYC, as elsewhere, the law is not enforced. You'd have to call the cops on your cell phone and report yourself to get so much as a warning here. I've seen drivers practically waving their cell phones under a nearby cop's nose without being stopped.

      Until enforcement gets serious -- and I'd be delighted to see each and every offender -- mom, dad or teen -- treated as no less a criminal than a drunken driver complete with all associated penalties, criminal record, and social stigma -- there's no point passing laws.

      Frankly, cops should be reported and fined for ignoring cell drunk drivers, and citizen arrests enabled and enouraged everywhere.
  • Ban it completely

    It has simply been proven to be dangerous. End of story.

    If it is really an emergency, you can plead you case to a judge.
    Or take the fine.
    • ok i'll bite

      If its proven so dangerous (albiet the few idiots that make the news) why isnt it already banned? Banning is NOT the solution - because then you have enforcement. With the BT devices getting smaller and smaller, checking on the actual USE of those devices would and could be construed as unreasonable search and seizure - violating your constitutional rights. Now if you are swerving and legitimately not paying attention to posted signs and warnings, hell yea you should be pulled over and written a ticket for RECKLESS DRVING or Driver Negligance. You cant chastize someone for having a cellular phone in the car - Education is the key, banning is draconian and rudimentary at best to give everyone that warm fuzzy to make people THINK they feel safer. Patriot Act ring a bell anyone?
      • Why it hasn't been banned yet...

        ..because even the legislators use them. And we ALL KNOW that no legislator is going to legislate away one of their own conveniences.
      • Bluetooth does not work for text messaging

        I have seen people texting while driving, it's easy to spot them since their eyes are not on the road and their hands are not on the wheel.

        It's fine to have a cell, just don't use it while driving. If someone is having a conversation and there's no one else in the car, 99.999% of the time they are on a cell phone and not just hearing the voice in their head.

        Your defense of rude and dangerous drivers is repetitive and totally unconvincing.

        Sure, we could all carry guns in our cars and as long as we don't shoot at the person who cuts us off or is too slow then everything is cool. It would be great if everyone acted responsibly, but that's not reality unfortunately.