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Most people can't talk on a cellphone and drive safely, study finds

March 30, 2010 | 10:00 am

Only a talented few can simultaneously talk on a cellphone and drive safely, according to a study from researchers at the University of Utah. The danger of a study like this is, of course, that everyone will think they are in the 2.5% of all people whom the study found to be "supertaskers." The pertinent fact is that 97.5% of us can't drive safely while talking on the phone -- even a hands-free phone.

Drive The researchers assessed the performance of 200 people using simulated freeway driving while conducting a conversation on a hands-free phone that involved memorizing words and solving some math problems. Performance was measured in braking, reaction time, following distance, memory and math execution.

For the vast majority of people, performance suffered in both driving and comprehension. Braking time increased by 20% while following distances increased by 30%. Memory performance declined 11% and math performance 3%. The deterioration in performance was comparable to the impairment seen in drunk drivers, the authors said.

A few individuals, however, were supertaskers -- they could successfully perform the two tasks at once with no deterioration in performance.

"There is clearly something special about supertaskers," said the authors, David Strayer and Jason Watson, in a news release. More studies are needed to examine the abilities of such people, since multi-tasking is now expected of adults in many circumstances, such as the workplace, they said. However, multi-tasking is not expected while operating a vehicle, nor should it be. "While we'd probably all like to think we are the exception to the rule, the odds are overwhelmingly against it," the authors note.

The study is published this week in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. You can read more about the topic on David Strayer's blog at CarTalk's Driver Distraction Center.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

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