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Listen Up: Any Cell Phone Use While Driving Is Risky

August 26, 2005

Whether talking or listening, your chances of an accident increase, study finds

Listening on your cell phone while driving can be just as risky as talking, a new study finds.

“It seems an intuitive understanding for most people that production [talking] on a cell phone is harder than comprehension [listening]. But the fact is that both result in poor driving performance,” said Tate Kubose, a cognitive scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and lead author of the study.

The findings appear in the Aug. 25 issue of the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

For the study, approximately 100 students participated in two experiments that included driving in virtual cars while talking and then listening to conversations on cell phones. The results: Both listening and talking made it tougher for the participants to maintain a fixed speed and to keep their car safe in a single lane, compared to students not using cell phones while driving.

Kubose said his study supports the growing body of literature that finds it is the conversations on cell phones, rather than the physical manipulations of handling a cell phone, that are most distracting to drivers.

“Unless it’s an emergency situation, it’s not worth the risk to talk or listen while driving,” he said.

For the study, almost 100 students took part in experiments in which they drove virtual cars. While driving, they had to provide answers about the layout of buildings on the University of Illinois campus, or check that statements made by others about relative positions of the buildings were correct. The researchers monitored various aspects of the students’ driving while they performed these tasks.

Participants drove a car simulator that was an automatic shift 1998 Saturn SL. The experiments simulated a straight, two-lane rural highway with no intersections or turns. Simulated wind gusts increased the difficulty of driving, as did the presence of another car that drove erratically ahead of the virtual car.

Overall, the researchers found that both speaking and listening on the phone reduced the drivers’ competence on the road, resulting in slower driving, more trouble staying in the proper lane and/or not keeping a safe distance from the unwieldy car ahead, Kubose said.

Frank Drews, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Utah, noted that earlier research has shown that talking on cell phones while driving quadruples the risk of an accident. This new study is important because it furthers the understanding of why cell phone use is so risky.

“This study pulls apart production and comprehension, an interesting direction to take, and allows us to get an insight into cognitive function,” he said.

Kubose said he and his colleagues are continuing to explore how cell phone use compromises driving ability, this time using natural conversations rather than giving and understanding directions.

In another recent study, published in the British Medical Journal, Australian researchers found that hands-free mobile phones are no safer than handheld mobile phones while driving.

More information

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

For more on the risks of using a cell phone while driving, visit the National Safety Council.




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