- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2008

They dawdle, they chat and text message — maybe they even remember to signal as traffic builds up behind them. There is now a name for these annoying people.

Behold the “plodding driver.” The roadways are full of them.

“At the end of the day, the average person’s commute is longer because of that person who is on the cell phone right in front of them,” said Dave Strayer, a University of Utah psychologist whose research has quantified what most of us have long suspected.

Blabby, distracted drivers are not just dangerous. They also measurably slow traffic.

“Our results indicated that when drivers conversed on a cell phone, they made fewer lane changes, had a lower overall mean speed and a significant increase in travel time,” Mr. Strayer said.

Based on the responses of 36 drivers navigating a nine-mile test course, the researchers found that those on cell phones were 20 percent less likely to bother changing lanes. They also drove an average of 2 mph slower and took 15 seconds to 19 seconds longer to complete the course.

The effects may seem minor, but little things add up — considering that an estimated 10 percent of all drivers are yakking at any given moment, Mr. Strayer said.

“If you get two or three people gumming up the system, it starts to cascade and slows everybody’s commute,” he noted.

These drivers also are unmotivated: They can spend up to 31 percent longer behind another slow vehicle than undistracted drivers can — lingering almost a minute before passing.

“If you were not distracted by talking on a cell phone, you would overtake and pass the slower vehicle,” said Ivana Vladisavljevic, a civil engineer at the campus who used computer-generated simulations to track typical “plodding” behaviors.

“We saw an increase in delays for all cars, and the delays increased as the percentage of drivers on cell phones increased,” she said.

The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association estimates that there are 240 million cell phone users in the United States — and 73 percent admit they’ve dialed and driven at some point.

Mr. Strayer’s previous research found that hands-free phones are no less dangerous than hand-held cell versions. The conversation itself is the major distraction, he said. Mr. Strayer also has found that phone-fixated drivers are as “impaired” as those who are legally drunk.

The research will be presented before the Transportation Research Board on Jan. 16.

“When people do cost-benefit analyses to decide whether we should regulate cell phones, they often don’t factor in the cost to society associated with increased commute times, excess fuel used by stop-and-go traffic and increased air pollution,” Mr. Strayer said.

The actual cost of traffic delays in lost productivity is $13 per driver, per hour, said Peter Martin, a civil engineer with the university’s Traffic Lab.

“If we compile the millions of drivers distracted by cell phones and their small delays and convert them to dollars, the costs are likely to be dramatic. Cell phones cost us dearly,” Mr. Martin said.

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