A study released by the AAA Foundation in 2008, revealed that two-thirds of Americans who use cell phones to communicate while driving believe that it is safer to talk on a hands free cell phone than on a hand-held device. The data shows that talking on hands-free devices almost equally impairs reaction times and increases the driver’s risk of being in a car accident as much as for a driver using a hand-held device, according to a study conducted by VTTI. With cell phone usage increasing the risk of a car accident by four times; this is a troubling finding. The reality is that it takes up to 27 seconds to regain full attention after issuing voice commands and even after the driver ends the call, he continues to be distracted for another 15 seconds (while driving at 25mph). Many researchers believe that this is due to, “withdrawal of attention from the processing of information in the driving environment” while speaking on a cell phone. The concept is also referred to as “inattentional blindness” or “perceptual blindness” in psychological literature which describes a situation where a person will fail to see an unexpected stimulus, such as a pedestrian stepping out into the road, because they are focusing their attention on a different task, in this case, talking on a cell phone. Simons & Chabris released a review of these experiments in 1999.
A study by Strayer, Drews, & Johnston (2003) found that drivers talking on hands-free phones were more likely than drivers not using phones to:
- Fail to notice traffic signals
- Were slower to respond to the brake lights of the vehicle in front of them
- More likely to cause rear-end crashes
- Less likely to be able to recall detailed information about specific visual stimuli
The fact that such a high number of Americans believe that talking on a hands-free device is relatively safe means that many are engaging in the act, thereby making the roads less safe. The truth needs to be communicated to all drivers but especially to teenaged drivers who already have a higher rate of accidents. Parents should make it clear that their teenagers are not allowed to use cell phones while driving and clearly explain the risks.
Cell Phone Laws by State
Each state has its own set of laws around cell phone usage. Some states only prohibit text messaging while driving, while others prohibit all hand-held usage. Some states have stricter laws for teenage drivers or drivers with learner’s permits. In Washington State, most drivers are not permitted to drive while using a hand-held device; this includes while the vehicle is stopped at a traffic light or stop sign.
The effects of cell phone laws are mixed. The states that have conducted studies found that use of cell phones tends to decrease for a short period after the implementation of a new law but increases back to prior levels. A study conducted by McCartt & Geary (2004) found that driver hand-held cell phone use decreased in four upstate New York communities immediately after the state’s hand-held cell phone ban became effective, but then jumped back up to the levels prior to implementation of the law when assessed again one year later. A study completed by Foss, Goodwin, McCartt, and Hellinga (2008) looked at the immediate effects of a law prohibiting cell phone use by drivers younger than 18 in North Carolina. They found that the proportion of teens using cell phones while driving did not change, perhaps because only 22 percent of teens said that they thought the law was being enforced “fairly often” or “a lot.”
This type of data suggests that governments need to continue with public awareness campaigns and provide adequate resources for enforcement even after laws are in place.
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