For years, Kansas University researcher Paul Atchley’s studies have pointed to the dangers of texting and talking on a cell phone while driving.
So, when Atchley latest research revealed that talking on a cell phone can actually cause drivers to perform better at the end of long trips, he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
“I had some trepidation in getting the message out that sometimes it’s OK to talk and drive,” Atchley said. “But, as a scientist you report the data, even if it is something you are not completely comfortable with.”
Atchley, an associate professor of psychology, adds some rather significant caveats to his findings. For starters, people should never talk on a cell phone if they can avoid it. And, the best thing to do when fatigued is to pull the car over and get some rest.
But when stopping isn’t an option, talking on a cell phone at the end of a drive can cause people to be more attentive to what is happening around them.
Atchley’s research - which is being published in next month’s issue of Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society - has caused a bit of a controversy.
“It’s a message that people want to hear and a message that people don’t want to hear,” he said.
KU graduate student Mark Chan co-authored the study. The two measured the attention levels of 45 students while they simulated driving on what Atchley called the world’s most boring video game.
For 30 minutes, students drove a car on a straight stretch of highway similar to the mind-numbing drive on Interstate 70 through western Kansas. During that time, they had to stay within the lanes, steer clear of intruding cars, avoid radical maneuvers and remember road signs.
Students who talked on the phone the entire time didn’t perform as safely as others in the group. However, students who talked on the phone for the last five minutes of the drive improved their performance level to where they were at the beginning of the exercise.
The students used hands-free headsets to talk and played word games with the other person on the phone.
“The key thing is keeping the mind engaged,” Atchley said.
Tricks such as listening to the radio or a book on tape, aren’t as effective because the brain can quickly tune them out and they don’t require the driver to interact like a phone conversation would.
One side note, Atchley said the NPR radio show “This American Life” has proven to work well because the one-hour broadcast is broken up in several acts and has different narrators. Those changes keep drivers engaged and attentive.
With 62,000 crashes occurring every year because of driver fatigue or failure to sustain attention, Atchley said the research area is an important one.
“On a long drive that is pretty boring, you start to space out, lose attention and it becomes less safe,” he said.