- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2005

Young drivers’ reaction times slow to that of a 70-year-old when they operate a vehicle while talking on a cell phone, University of Utah researchers have found.

The study, published in the winter issue of the quarterly journal Human Factors, says this slowdown negatively affects driving performances and enhances the risk of accidents.

Frank A. Drews, assistant professor of psychology and co-author of the study, said giving younger drivers a cell phone and letting them drive is a way of instantly aging them, giving them the same reaction times as “someone who is just driving and not talking to a cell phone and has an average age of 70 years.”

Cell phone distractions while driving cause 2,600 deaths, 330,000 injuries and $1.5 million in property damage in the United States each year, said the journal’s publisher, the Human Factors and Ergonomic Society.

“Even when participants directed their gaze at objects in the driving environment, they often failed to ‘see’ them when they were talking on a cell phone because their attention was directed [elsewhere],” the study says.

The study found that drivers ages 18 to 25 who were talking on cell phones while driving were 18 percent slower to react to brake lights. In a minor bright note, they kept a 12 percent greater following distance.

But they also took 17 percent longer to regain the speed they lost when they braked.

Mr. Drews said the few milliseconds involved by impaired reactions might sound trivial, but it could make the difference between hitting the back of a car or braking just in time to avoid a collision.

In a study conducted in 2003, the researchers concluded that motorists who talk on cell phones are more impaired than drunken drivers, putting the equivalent blood alcohol level in excess of 0.08 percent.

It does not matter whether the phone is hand-held or hands-free, Mr. Drews said.

“The main impact of talking to a cell phone is not due to the manual component — holding it — it is basically the fact that you are conversing with someone,” he said. “Driving and talking are two tasks that require people to pay a lot of attention and they conflict.”

Cell phones’ effect on driving safety has generated public concern regarding the danger posed by these devices, and many state legislatures have responded with various proposals to restrict cell phone use while driving.

But Mr. Drews questioned the effectiveness of cell phone usage laws, because they do not discourage hands-free phone use and do not eliminate the distracting effects of the phone conversations themselves.

These laws, he said, “make it impossible for people to hold an object in your hand, but in a way you could argue that a can of Coke would basically have the same impairment. The main issue is not holding; it really is conversing.”

Yet, Mr. Drews made it clear that a conversation with a passenger in the vehicle does not entail the same risks, because the driver can get support from the passenger.

“Passengers help the driver allocate his or her attention better: They point out the potential dangers like there is someone in front that is driving kind of awkwardly,” he said. “That is something a person on a cell phone cannot do.”

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