Don’t ask me why I am so fixated on this topic but whenever I see an article about driving and cell phone use I post on it (example here). The idea that talking on the phone, dialing or texting while driving might be a wee bit of a cognitive problem doesn’t seem too controversial, but many people think that the “hands free” version gets around the dangers. The little work that has been done on that subject suggests otherwise. Does that mean that just talking to another passenger is just as bad? Apparently not:
Hands-free mobile phone calls are significantly more distracting than even the most talkative passenger, a new study by US psychologists has found.
It is the latest in a line of studies calling into question the safety of hands-free devices for drivers. Previous research in Australia found that using them while driving is just as dangerous as talking on a regular cellphone, increasing the risk of crashing by a factor of four. (New Scientist)
David Strayer and colleagues at the University of Utah’s Applied Cognition Laboratory have been studying phone use while driving using a driving simulator for some years. In a paper in press at the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied they studied 96 drivers, aged 18 to 49 year old. Using a hands free phone resulted in straying out of their lanes and missing exists more frequently than when they carried on similar conversations with a passenger in the car. This seems kind of odd and the explanation isn’t completely clear. Strayer’s explanation is that passengers add cognitive value, or at least take less of it away:
“When you take a look at the data, it turns out that a driver conversing with a passenger is not as impaired a driver talking on a cellphone,” says Strayer. “The passenger adds a second set of eyes, and helps the driver navigate and reminds them where to go.”
What’s more, passengers simplify or slow their conversation in response to conditions on the road. “The difference between a cell-phone conversation and passenger conversation is due to the fact that the passenger is in the vehicle and knows what the traffic conditions are like,” he says.
There is certainly value to having a phone in the car in the event of emergency. Under certain circumstances it can save money and lives. But I know too many people who fill up their commute times by calling friends and family as they whiz down the highway at 100 feet per second. And they are sharing the road with me. That scares the crap out of me.
And I know I’m not the only one.