WASHINGTON-A new study claims mobile-phone use while driving is as dangerous as drinking while behind the wheel, reinforcing previous research on distracted driving and further complicating industry’s message the wireless phones are a safety tool.
“We found that people are as impaired when they drive and talk on a cell phone as they are when they drive intoxicated at the legal blood-alcohol limit,” said study co-author Frank Drews, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah. “If legislators really want to address driver distraction, then they should consider outlawing cell-phone use while driving.”
Policy-makers in Lawrence, Kan., tried doing just that, but the city’s Traffic Safety Commission recommended against the proposal and instead urged hiking fines for inattentive driving. The city has yet to vote on the latter plan.
Meantime, state legislatures around the country are wrestling with a variety of cell-phone driver bans. Many bills seek to prohibit driver operation of handheld phones but permit the use of hands-free devices. Others target teen drivers and school-bus drivers.
New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and the District of Columbia make driver use of handheld phones illegal, but allow drivers to have cellular conversations using hands-free accessories.
“Just like you put yourself and other people at risk when you drive drunk, you put yourself and others at risk when you use a cell phone and drive. The level of impairment is very similar,” said psychology professor David Strayer, lead author the University of Utah study.
The University of Utah noted in its press release that the “drunken” individuals in the driving simulation portion of the study were observed the morning after their intoxication. Indeed, researchers noted 80 percent of all fatal alcohol-related accidents occur between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., when drunken drivers tend to be fatigued.
The University of Utah study, published in the summer 2006 issue of Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, is the final product of work begun several years ago when preliminary results were publicized.
Human Factors Editor Nancy Cooke praised the study: “Although we all have our suspicions about the dangers of cell-phone use while driving, human factors research on driver safety helps us move beyond mere suspicions to scientific observations of driver behavior.”
The study concludes the safest course of action is not to use a cell phone while driving. University of Utah researchers previously published data showing that talking via hands-free while driving is just as distracting as talking on a handheld phone because the conversation itself-not just the manipulation of a handheld-diverts a driver’s concentration from the road.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shares that view.
“Our position is there are risks regardless of what type phone you’re using. In some cases, the risk of using hands-free is greater,” said Rae Tyson, a NHTSA spokeswoman.
Yet NHSTA has done relatively little to supplement the cell-phone industry’s safe-driving campaign. NHTSA’s teen driver safety campaign-which can be found at www.distracteddriving.org-is a low-budget operation that pales in comparison to its highly successful outreach efforts to curb drinking and driving. Tyson did not comment on the latest University of Utah study.
The wireless industry again objected to being singled out, and it pointed to statistics suggesting cell-phone driver distraction may well be exaggerated.
“The wireless industry has always maintained that many potential driving distractions exist and that safely operating a vehicle is the first and foremost responsibility for every driver,” said John Walls, a spokesman for cellular trade association CTIA. “It is interesting that this three-year-old study appears to be at odds with the recently released NHTSA/Virginia Tech 100 car naturalistic study. Among the NHTSA findings, there is little, if any, difference in the risk of having an accident or a near-accident whether one is listening or talking on a cell phone while driving, or just driving. Real life data also shows that over the past 10 years, the number of drivers and miles driven has gone up, and that there’s been a 650-percent increase in the number of wireless subscribers and a near 4,000-percent increase in average minutes of use. Yet, even with more drivers driving many more miles, and the huge increases in cell-phone subscribers and use, we have still seen a 5-percent decrease in the number of accidents in the United States.”
Still, distracted driving has become for the wireless industry a public-relations challenge that has eluded other business sectors-food, cosmetics, music and entertainment-whose products have become commonplace in the automobile.
The new University of Utah study found that compared with undistracted drivers:
- Motorists who talked on either handheld or hands-free cell phones drove slightly slower, were 9-percent slower to hit the brakes, displayed 24-percent more variation in following distance as their attention switched between driving and conversing, were 19-percent slower to resume normal speed after braking and were more likely to crash. Three study participants rear-ended the pace car. All were talking on cell phones. None were drunk.
- Drivers with a .08 percent blood-alcohol level drove a bit more slowly than both undistracted drivers and drivers using cell phones, yet more aggressively. They followed the pace car more closely, were twice as likely to brake only four seconds before a collision would have occurred, and hit their brakes with 23-percent more force. “Neither accident rates, nor reaction times to vehicles braking in front of the participant, nor recovery of lost speed following braking differed significantly” from undistracted drivers, researchers stated.
The study was funded by a $25,000 grant from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is interested in impaired attention among pilots, and by Strayer’s and Drews’ salaries. The Utah Highway Patrol loaned the researchers a device to measure blood-alcohol levels.
“Fortunately, the percentage of drunk drivers at any time is much lower,” Drews said. “So it means the risk of talking on a cell phone and driving is probably much higher than driving intoxicated because more people are talking on cell phones while driving than are driving drunk.” The main reason there are not more accidents, according to Drews, is that 92 percent of drivers are not on a cell phone and are compensating for drivers on cell phones.
Researchers cited CTIA figures indicating that more than 100 million U.S. motorists use cell phones while driving. NHTSA estimates that at any given moment during daylight hours, 8 percent of all drivers are talking on a cell phone.