Thursday, November 29, 2001

More evidence that yakking on a cell phone while behind the wheel of a car is dangerous has come in but with an interesting twist. Researchers at the University of Utah found that it is the actual talking, not the use of cell phones as such, that makes a driver more likely to have an accident. David L. Strayer and William A. Johnson used a computer-simulated driving environment to test people’s reactions while talking on both hands-free and hand-held cell phones or just listening to the radio. A red light would flash on the screen to indicate the need to brake, as for a traffic signal, pedestrian or other obstacle. The researchers found that those using phones, irrespective of the type used (hands-free or hand-held), were more than twice as likely to miss a “red” the equivalent of failing to notice a traffic signal or another car than those not attempting to hold a conversation. The radio listeners did not give evidence of slowed reaction times.
The Utah study is interesting because it suggests that efforts to ban the use of hand-held cell phones while allowing motorists to lawfully use the hands-free type won’t accomplish much. Several such statutes are on the books already, and the auto industry has pretty much converted its factory-installed cell phone systems to the hands-free type.
An academic study should not be necessary to confirm the obvious, however. Any distraction that takes away from a driver’s ability to concentrate on the road and the ever-changing driving environment is bound to increase the odds of an accident. Attempting to conduct business, or hold an important personal conversation, while negotiating busy city streets is plain dumb, cell phone or not. The problem is that we’ve become so busy and our lives so hectic that maximizing every hour of the day has become a near obsession for many of us. But that doesn’t make it any less ill-advised to “multi-task” behind the wheel of a car.
Whether new laws and regulations are the answer is debatable. It would be far better to use common sense. If you have to cinch that important deal or make peace with your significant other pull over and do it safely by the side of the road.

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