There is a controversy developing around the issue of banning the use of cellular phones by drivers in Lawrence. My laboratory at Kansas University studies how our visual system works. I specifically examine how attention impacts our ability to see the world around us, including how cellular phones impact driving. I would like to share what research has shown thus far about the risk of cellular phones and driving to help us better understand this issue.
The first question people ask is, "Does cellular phone use lead to accidents?" The answer is "Yes, by as much as driving while drunk." There are numerous studies that demonstrate risk, but I think two very large and well-controlled studies published in the past 10 years in the New England Journal of Medicine and the British Medical Journal provide the best evidence. In both studies, hundreds of drivers who had been in accidents agreed to allow researchers to access their cellular phone records.
The researchers looked at how many people were using phones when they crashed and compared that to whether those same drivers were on a phone during previous weeks when they had not been in an accident. This method eliminated other risks like eating or talking to a passenger from the final calculation. The studies produced amazingly similar results, despite being conducted years apart by different researchers in different locations. Both found the increase in risk to be more than 400 percent, or the same risk as driving under the influence.
A second question is, "Can I use a hands-free cellular phone safely?" The answer is "No, hands-free cellular phones are just as unsafe." In the studies mentioned above, the researchers compared hand-held and hands-free devices and found no difference for the number of accidents. It is not holding the phone that is distracting, it is the conversation.
Researchers in my area of study have shown that what we perceive is not determined by what our eyes see, but by what our brain can process. If we are attending to one thing, our brain will miss others. When we converse, the ability of our brain to process visual information is reduced. Our brain "fills in" so we do not notice, but if something happens suddenly on the road such as a car entering an intersection, we can miss it. When you read accident reports you commonly read, "The car appeared out of nowhere," because, for the distracted driver, the brain literally does not see the other car until it is too late.
Related to the issue of distraction, people ask, "What about other distractions such as talking to a passenger or listening to the radio?" Research shows in-car conversations tend to be less risky because the driver and passenger know how demanding road conditions are, so they regulate their conversations accordingly. Those with children have experienced this if they asked their children to remain quiet when road conditions became demanding.
This regulation does not happen when the other speaker is miles away on a phone. If you have ever realized you missed hearing 10 minutes of a favorite radio program, you see what the brain does to passive distractions: It filters them out if it needs to attend to the road. And, while there are other problems such as eating or reading books while driving, these are far less frequent than the ever-increasing use of phones.
To summarize, there is no controversy among experts regarding whether or not cellular phones increase risk. Lawrence is not breaking ground by considering a ban; cellular phone bans are already in place in more than 50 countries. Cellular phones are as risky as driving while drunk, and like drunken driving, changes to laws and enforcement will start on a local level.
- Paul Atchley is an associate professor of psychology at Kansas University.