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Thursday, January 22, 2009
Evidence Proves that Cell Phone Use Contributes to Dangerous Driving Distractions
A study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute concluded that almost 80 percent of motor vehicle crashes and 65% of near crashes involve driver inattention within three seconds before the event. While the study looked at all different types of driver distractions, it listed use of wireless communication devices (cell phones and PDAs) as the most common form of driver distraction.
Governors in all 50 states have been urged to support legislation that either bans or severely limits the use of cell phones while driving. The request was based on a study by the Harvard Center of Risk Analysis that showed cell phone use is responsible for some 636,000 crashes, resulting in 330,000 injuries and 2,600 deaths each year.
The Harvard study is just one of several over the past few years that have concluded that cell phone use while driving is dangerous. The studies looked at cell phone use and the use of in-vehicle technology from several different aspects; observing driving behavior while using cell phones, how the brain functions when multi-tasking, and the decision making process to use technology while driving.
Five states currently ban the use of hand-held cell phones in favor of hands-free devices while driving. However, several studies have shown that there is little difference between the two when it comes to minding the road ahead. Both hand-held and hands-free devices involve listening. The act of listening is what distracts drivers from paying attention to the road. A study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University placed participants in a functional MRI scanner that allowed researchers to observe brain activity while the subjects “drove” on a computerized roadway. Without distractions, the area of the brain that lit up most was the area involved in spatial perception (knowing where you are and what’s around you). When the same subjects were tasked with listening to and correctly answering a series of questions as they drove, the area of the brain that lit up most was the area involving language comprehension, while activity in the spatial perception area of the brain decreased by as much as 37 percent. Multitasking places high demands on the brain.
Studies that looked at the decision making process drivers engage in when using a variety of in-vehicle technology devices (cell phones, PDAs, GPS, CDs, radios, etc.) showed a disturbing trend. Traffic or road conditions were not necessarily a factor in determining when to use a particular device. The decision was based more on the driver’s motivation to use the device rather than whether or not road conditions were safe enough to permit the task. It was also revealed that participants didn’t rate use of a cell phone as any more dangerous than eating or drinking in a vehicle.
A study completed by the University of Utah put subjects in a driving simulator while researchers observed their driving behavior in three scenarios: 1) without distractions, 2) talking with a passenger, and 3) while engaged in a cell phone conversation. The participants drove roughly 8 miles on a simulated freeway with light to moderate traffic. They were instructed to exit the freeway at a rest stop. Drivers talking on cell phones performed the worse. They were more likely to weave or depart from their lane, and were four times more likely to miss their scheduled turn off at the rest area. Talking to their passenger had little effect on their driving. Although talking on the cell phone or talking to a passenger both require listening and conversation skills, a passenger can provide assistance in pointing out dangers ahead or limit a conversation when the driving task becomes more complicated.
An earlier University of Utah study showed that a 20 year old driver on a cell phone had the same reaction time as a 70 year old. Regardless of age, drivers on cell phones were 18% slower in stepping on the brakes, and 17% slower in regaining their speed after braking. They also kept a greater following distance and slower speed than drivers who were not using cell phones, which contributes to congestion on the roadways.