The cell phone is a wonderful technological development. It is not uncommon to see someone steering a car with one hand while talking on a cell phone held in the other. Is that safe? According to a 2006 report from the University of Utah, driving while talking on a cell phone is comparable to driving with a 0.08 blood alcohol level, which is considered drunken driving in most states. Fifteen states have laws that ban school bus drivers from using cell phones while transporting students, and a number of states and municipalities have laws banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Some people use hands-free sets, but are they really better?
The new Utah study shows that drivers are more impaired by talking on a cell phone than talking with a passenger in the car; the study also found that hands-free cell phones are just as bad as hand-held models because it's the conversation itself that causes the biggest distraction. "The difference between having a conversation with someone on your cell phone and having one with a passenger is that the passenger is in the car and knows what the traffic conditions are like,” said researcher David Strayer. “The passenger can also help the driver by pointing out hazards and pointing out exits.” Lead researcher Frank Drews said, “We think it’s basically a process of joint attention.”
The moral of the new study is that having a conversation on a hand-held or hands-free cell phone while driving is dangerous; talking with a passenger while driving is less so. Drive safely by not talking on your cell phone at the same time.
Research by the National Transportation Safety Administration shows that using cell phones while driving degrades driver performance, decreases reaction time and increases instances of attention lapses. In 2006, the Board recommended that the FMCSA prohibit commercial drivers with passengers or school bus drivers from using cell phones while driving, except in emergencies. In response, the National School Transportation Association, the National Association for Pupil Transportation and the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services urged all school bus operators to prohibit drivers from using cell phones while driving.
The National Safety Council says that people who drive while talking on a cell phone are four times more likely to be involved in a collision than drivers who aren’t using cell phones. Research also shows that using any type of mobile phone, including hands free devices, while driving slows reaction time. According to separate studies from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and the University of Utah, cell phone distraction causes as many as 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries in the U.S. each year.
School buses are designed for safety inside and out. In fact, riding a bus is the safest way for children to get to and from school, as much as 13 times safer than other modes of transportation, even safer than the family car.
But if motorists are distracted by talking on cell phones, they may fail to see or react quickly enough to a slowed or stopped school bus in front of them. A tragic collision in Marion County involving a school bus struck by a truck driver on his cell phone demonstrates just how dangerous cell phone usage can be.
The University of Utah study was published in the December 2008 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.