Hands-free cells still dangerous

By Lana Groves, Asst. News Editor

Tanya Richards was driving to California on Interstate 80 last year when a car to her left changed lanes quickly to make an exit and barely missed hitting her vehicle.

The 26-year-old, who graduated from the U with a degree in history four years ago, said the other driver had apparently been talking on a cell phone, missed an exit and tried to get over in time.

“The guy didn’t hit me, but he could have,” Richards said. “It’s the reason I don’t talk on my phone when I drive.”

More drivers are talking on their phones, and according to U researchers, they are more than five times more likely to get in an accident than a driver not on a cell phone, even if they are talking on a hands-free phone.

“Any type of cell phone conversation is dangerous,” said Frank Drews, a professor working on the study. “Hands-free is not safe8212;all our studies are hands-free.”

Drews and David Strayer, both psychology professors, have been conducting simulation tests for students driving and talking on phones for the past five years. They published a study two years ago that showed that cell phone drivers are more dangerous on the road than other drivers.

Drews said they completed a new study comparing the driving of someone talking on a cell phone to a driver talking to a passenger in a car, and found that the cell phone drivers are a “far greater” problem.

“I had just walked across a street when the light changed and the woman in the first car was talking on her cell phone,” Drews said. “Someone honked at her and she didn’t notice. Someone else tried to pass her and then she suddenly went and almost caused an accident.”

Drews said drivers talking to passengers have a second set of eyes to help watch the road, and change their conversation depending on where they are driving.

Strayer said drivers talking to a passenger aren’t as dangerous because the passenger is still paying attention to the road and can see when the driver needs to pay attention. Drivers talking on a cell phone, especially when the conversation contains new or important information, are at risk because they become distracted by the topic and fail to notice their surroundings.

Strayer and Drews gave sets of U students driving in a simulator certain conversation topics and asked them to get off the road at the exit. Drews said out of 48 simulation tests, only three drivers tested with passengers missed the exit, but 12 of the cell phone drivers missed it.

“When you take a look at the data, it turns out that a driver conversing with a passenger is not as impaired (as) a driver talking on a cell phone,” Strayer said in a statement. “You see bigger lane deviations for someone talking on a cell phone compared with a driver talking to a passenger.”

For drivers who send text messages and hold their phone while talking, the risk is higher, Drews said.

Cell phone drivers don’t even notice they are driving poorly, he said.

“The woman who nearly caused an accident was upset when someone honked at her,” Drews said. “She thought she was driving fine.”

The researchers also found that people driving while listening to music or the radio drive nearly as well as someone not distracted.

“If I’m listening to a talk on the radio, I can fade in and out, and pay attention to my driving,” Drews said.

The study will be published Dec. 15 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Drews said they will probably publish another study on text message driving in the fall of 2009.

“Friends don’t let friends talk on cell phones when driving,” Drews said.

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