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Dial D for danger if you use a car phone, even a hands-free one, says researcher; phone company argues that doesn't ring true

FRIDAY, July 20, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- If you think driving while talking on your cell phone is as easy as chewing gum and walking, you're wrong, says a psychology professor who studies driver distractions. And that applies whether you hold the phone or use a hands-free model, he adds.

"We all think that driving is easy," says Paul Atchley of the University of Kansas. "But think back to when you learned. It's not a single process. If you're inattentive, you'll get into an accident."

Although there's precious little data available, previous studies have found that conversations on cell phones by drivers can quadruple the chance of an accident. And the entire debate heated up again recently when New York became the first state to ban the use of hand-held cell phones by drivers of moving vehicles.

As far as Atchley is concerned, the problem is distraction.

"Your brain has access to only four objects in the visual world at any one time," explains Atchley. While driving and planning where you're going, you are also judging the paths of other vehicles, gauging your speed, deciding whether to speed up or brake and looking around to see where other cars are.

Throw in talking, listening and planning your next response, and you're an accident waiting to happen, Atchley says.

But one cell phone manufacturer takes exception to this reasoning.

"This is flawed logic," says Dan Wilinsky, a spokesman for Sprint PCS. "We respectfully disagree that using a hands-free cell phone while driving is a distraction."

Drivers need to stay focused on their driving, but it's possible to do both, he says.

"There are many studies, including one by AAA, which show talking and driving ranks about ninth on a set of distractions," says Wilinsky. He contends that talking to someone else in the car or fiddling with a CD player can be more distracting.

But Atchley claims a phone conversation is different: "With a car conversation, people will inhibit discussion if it appears the conversation is affecting driving. The conversation pace might slow down, or end, while the driver concentrates. "

During a phone conversation, the other party can't sense the danger, Atchley explains.

"Think of conversations you've had with someone who's on their cell phone while driving. The conversation will get halting and sporadic when the traffic gets heavy," he says. "Their stutter is telling you their brain is trying to drive and hold a conversation at the same time."

Atchley says he doesn't think everyone should throw out their cell phones; just don't use them when you're behind the wheel. And laws such as the one just passed in New York won't make a difference, he adds: "It's the conversation -- not the touching of the keypads -- that is critical."

But Wilinsky says Atchley should hang up that argument.

"More research and education is needed to get drivers to use a phone responsibly," he admits. "You have to draw the line somewhere, but who's to say that talking on your cell phone is any more distracting than talking to the kids in the back seat."

In a road emergency, however, even Atchley concedes that a cell phone might be helpful. But by then, you should have pulled over to the side of the road.

What To Do

Be aware of how you drive while using the phone, says Atchley. If you find it is tough to hold a conversation, think about why it's hard to concentrate on the road and the phone at the same time.

A lot of common sense is necessary, adds Wilinsky. Drivers should always "keep their hand on the wheel and their eyes on the road."

Are you a safe driver? Check out these driver safety tips and see how many you follow.

Read a 1997 report on highway safety and the use of wireless communications compiled by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

SOURCES: Interviews with Paul Atchley, Ph.D., assistant professor, psychology, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas; Dan Wilinsky, spokesman, Sprint PCS, Kansas City, Kansas
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