Drivers better off talking to passengers

Cell phone calls are far more distracting to drivers than chats with their passengers, a new study finds. The results apply to hand-held phones as well as those equipped with hands-free devices such as wireless headphones.

Researchers at the University of Utah examined the simulated driving patterns of 41 adults and their passenger friends, concluding that “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.” Most of the study subjects were young adults. (continued)

cell phone driving researchers use simulator

Graduate students demonstrate the driving simulator used at the University of Utah

“Friends don’t talk to their driving friends on cell phones,” researcher Frank Drews says.

Drivers using mobile phones drove much worse than motorists talking with passengers. The cell-phone users were more likely to drift in their lane, and kept a greater distance between their car and the car in front, signaling a lack of attention. They were four times more likely to miss pulling off the highway at a rest area specified by researchers.

Passenger conversation seemed not to affect performance.

The university has been active in research on cell phone use by drivers; its work includes the famous 1996 study that concluded motorists using cell phones are as bad at driving as drunks. The researchers maintain that both handheld cell phones and those with the hands-free devices are a hazard. They also concluded in another study that young adults using mobile phones exhibit reaction times as slow as those of seniors.

The new study also found that drivers tended to talk more when using the cell phone. This could be due to the drivers trying to control the conversation to mask the fact that they were distracted inattentive to the person on the other end of the line.

The Utah researchers did not address the affects of text messaging, a major national concern in recent months.

The Utah cell phone study first appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, dated Dec. 15.

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