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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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Comments (20)

I certainly agree that using a telephone while driving is dangerous and puts the driver those around him/her at risk. It perplexes me why the penalty for doing so in California is so light - hardly a deterrent.
I am interested to know why only freeway driving was studied - driving locally involves much more steering, use of gears (if you drive a manual transmission as I do), braking, etc., which is perhaps more adversely affected by telephone usage. I see people all the time who can't take a simple, low speed corner properly because they are trying to drive with one hand while talking on the phone.
Also, typical freeway following distances are, to my observation, horribly dangerous - many vehicles follow with less than a one-second gap, never mind two or three. At what point does an increased following distance constitute dangerous driving? This isn't NASCAR, you know!

This falls into the "tell me something I don't already know" category. Then I realize, there are a few people who don't understand this yet.

They're the self-entitled, sociopathic, scofflaws that continue to drive with one hand propped to their ear. The rest of us know that they're driving unsafely because, fully alert with undivided attention, we dodge around them when they drift across the lane markers or we patiently pass them when they suddenly drop their speed while driving in the fast lane as their consciousness is rerouted to the phone discussion they are having. These individuals haven't figured out the unsafe driving connection because they drive around generally unaware of other drivers.

Discrediting the current law against handheld phones while driving by arguing that it's no better with hands free does not detract from the fact that cell phone drivers are a road safety hazard. The flaw to current laws is twofold: 1) it does not go far enough by only addressing half of the problem and 2) inherently, enforcement can only be scattershot.

Perhaps one day, the majority of drivers will simply choose to have their conversations once they've parked their cars. That's how we used to do it - and not that long ago.

They should make a law where holding the phone while driving becomes prohibited. In the Netherlands it is already forbidden by law. In some other European countries they have also such legislation. I can tell, it really works. By the way; it is just so much easier phoning with a carkit/handsfree earpiece. Most cars with bluetooth are able to connect your cell with the speakersystem. Only thing you need is a build in mic. Simple and safe.

Greetz from the Netherlands

Contrary to popular myth, humans cannot multitask. So, natch, you are either driving - meaning you are paying attention to the car and the surroundings - or you are absorbed in a telephone conversation.

I talk and drive all the time. Yes i am fully aware that it is against the law and just do not care.

And increased following distance is a bad thing?

Most people can't drive...period!

I am definitely not a "supertasker," but my roommate might be -- at least while watching television. She is able to talk over the news and other shows that I am watching and trying to comprehend -- saying that she has heard it all before and knows it all. After I scold her for interrupting my intake, she acts like I am inferior to her and actually proceeds to repeat, supposedly, every word of what I missed. Or so she thinks. I've also noticed that when she yawns loudly in front of the television, two tones come out of her mouth simultaneously. Polyharmonics???? Now I am wondering if there might be people who have some kind of a split mind or the ability to split their focus. Or maybe only split vocal chords.

You are right people should stop talking while driving.

Shouldn't they change this to: "Most people can't drive safely"?

Actually, you are REQUIRED to be a Supertasker while operating a motor vehicle. There are a number of simultaneous variables that you need to take into account while driving, and only being able to process a limited number of functions at the same time is as bad. You see them all the time, not on a cell phone, not talking to a passenger, but they have problems doing everything perfectly (using their signal, full and complete stop, defensive driving techniques marked by an awareness of their surroundings and anticipating driver behaviours, etc.)...

Make it a 2 point violation with mandatory traffic school. Set the fine at $250.00 then see how many people don't care & talk on there cell phones.

There are those who say that even using a hands-free device is unsafe.

What does this mean for having a conversation in the car with a passenger?

Why don't they include that in their studies?

Actually Trevor, the penalty in California isn't that light, while the base fee is around $20, additional assessments would up the fine up to over a hundred dollars...and that's just the first offense. The problem is mostly about enforcement. Just as there are many drivers texting or talking on their cellphone driving around, there are also speeders, drunk drivers and sometimes lax CHP officers.

As to the results of the study -- I am hardly surprised. Time and again, the NHTSA and the Virginia Institute of Technology have released their own findings that driving while texting is as dangerous as driving under the influence.

What do airline pilots do when they receive a radio call while doing something complicated? Such as turning to land. Even if the tower is calling, they click the transmit button once.

This tells the caller "I'm busy". There are moments while driving anything when your brain has to pay full attention.

Gary Curtis

Anyone surprised by this? It's so easy observe, unless you are the one on the phone.

I'd like to know where this research comes from. I have been driving for over 20 years with a phone - and NEVER received a ticket or had an accident while driving with a phone.
In that period of time, I have had one ticket and two accidents - one accident, where to comply with the law, I stopped when a fire station turned on a red signal on the street on which I was driving and a car slammed into me from behind at 35 mph. I used my phone to call for a ride, after the firemen came out to be sure I was OK and witnessed the accident.
I do not believe all the hype. Anyone can 'buy' a study.

texting and driving is def dangerous... here is a cool iphone app that helps when u must multitask its not the solution but it helps....StealthType is a new app for the iPhone that helps you type a message without looking at the phone. There's an SMS version now and a Maps version coming soon.

Check it out in the app store:

To those 2 fools who proudly talk on their phones and drive - knock it off! As many other folks are pointing out, you are being so completely self-absorbed, you have no idea of the havoc you are wreaking in doing so. Virtually every time I come across a dangerous driver (no turn signal, slamming on brakes, veering across lanes, 40mph in the fast lane) it's someone on a cell phone. It's time to wake up and realize there are other people around with rights (and no, you don't have a right to talk on the phone when you drive - it's illegal).

And this is new news? Distractions have become a necessary part of living especially in this society. Forcing one to limit these distractions while driving is a very good idea. Are men and women equal offenders? In my excursions I see an equal amount of both sexes choosing distraction over focus. The fines for violations should be stiff and unforgiving, otherwise, drivers will continue to take unnecessary risks. Is ones business interest more valuable than someones life? Need to communicate? Pull over and yap away.


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