Can You Talk on the Phone While Driving Safely? A New Study Says Probably Not

March 30th, 2010

I once counted six cars in a row with drivers talking on cell phones, all within two miles of leaving home. One after another they passed me in the opposite direction, and each driver had a phone plastered to his or her ear.

It’s certainly a common sight on American roads, and I think it’s safe to assume a very large percentage of people chat while driving, but according to a new study, only 2.5 percent of us can do it safely.

In the study, psychologists have identified a group of people who can successfully do two things at once, in this case talking on a cell phone while operating a driving simulator without noticeable impairment.

The study refers to these people as “supertaskers,” and study member James Watson of the University of Utah said of them,

Given the number of individuals who routinely talk on the phone while driving, one would have hoped that there would be a greater percentage of supertaskers, and while we’d probably all like to think we are the exception to the rule, the odds are overwhelmingly against it. In fact, the odds of being a supertasker are about as good as your chances of flipping a coin and getting five heads in a row.

Or maybe seeing six cell-phone-talking drivers in a row. I feel like I might be a supertasker… I’ve talked on my phone a lot while logging many highway miles without a single incident. Of course, my state will make chatting and driving a primary offense this summer, and I’m not about to break the law, so it looks like my streak will come to an end.

If talking on the phone while driving were as dangerous as some might have us believe, I wonder why the death rate on American highways hasn’t increased exponentially along with the use of cell phones in cars over the last 10 years or so.

In the study, researchers assessed the performance of 200 participants in a simulated freeway driving experience, and again while carrying on a cell phone conversation that involved memorizing words and solving math problems. Performance was then measured in four areas: braking reaction time, following distance, memory, and math execution.

Naturally, in all but 2.5 percent of the cases, reaction times were increased. But here’s my beef with the study: Who talks on the phone while memorizing words and solving math problems? A real conversation is more likely to revolve around who hooked up with who… not solving the theory of perspective in projective geometry.

Chatting while driving can be dangerous, but I believe a lot more than 2.5 percent of us can do it safely. In fact, I think it’s more like there are 2.5 percent of us who can’t.

Can you talk on the phone while driving safely?

-tgriffith

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  1. mark
    March 30th, 2010 at 22:49 | #1

    I agree that the test conditions are not representive of real world conditions, but a test needs to be repeatable.

    I’ve long maitained that a prerequisite to getting a driver’s license should be a mental apptitude test. I personally know several people who would likely find it hard to pass a mental apptitude test yet they are regularly given permission to drive.

  2. March 30th, 2010 at 13:54 | #2

    Interesting that the study writeup doesn’t mention whether tested drivers were dealing with their phones entirely by hand or using any sort of hands-free assistance, like a holder or Bluetooth earpiece, etc. Seems like more and more car companies are adding cell-phone assistance to cars, but if those helpers will just make drivers less attentive….

  3. tgriffith
    March 30th, 2010 at 09:17 | #3

    @ randy
    You’re right Randy, you called me out on that… I need to stop making calls while behind the wheel, at least without a hands-free device. I disagree with the law, but that doesn’t mean I want to break it.

  4. randy
    March 30th, 2010 at 06:18 | #4

    I’m sure no supertasker. Although I’m a lot better than some of the cell phone drivers I’ve seen, I still suffer from a reduction in attention if I talk on the phone when I drive.

    As to the death rate not skyrocketing, that’s probably because we still are conscious with open eyes and have a hand on the wheel when driving and phoning (except when dialing) so the behavior tends to cause less serious accidents and/or most drivers around us are not on the phone, and they compensate for our inattentive mistakes.

    Not so, of course, with texting, which requires much more attention and removes eyes from the road, and does seem to be the cause of much more serious accidents.

    You do mention that using a cell phone while driving will become a “primary” offense in your state and since you’re not about to break the law, you’ll stop. Well, isn’t it a secondary offense now? I would point out that you’re already breaking the law and you’re only planning to stop when you can get busted for it.

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