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Young Cell Phone Users Drive Like Seniors

Talking slows reaction time to that of 70-year-olds, study finds

THURSDAY, Feb. 3 (HealthDay News) - Driving while talking on a cell phone adds decades to a young driver's life -- at least in terms of impaired driving ability, researchers say.

A new study finds the reaction time of young drivers using cell phones slows to levels roughly equivalent to those seen in 70-year-old drivers not using cell phones.

"They aged 50 years in five seconds, just by turning on their cell phones," said researcher Frank Drews, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah.

The findings, published in the current issue of Human Factors, included some good news for elderly drivers: their cell phone use did not further slow their reaction time any more than that of the young.

Drews and his colleagues first came to public attention in 2001, with a study pinpointing "inattention blindness" -- a splitting of available attention between the phone conversation and the road ahead -- as the main cause of impaired driving while on cell phones. That study raised questions as to whether legislation in New York and New Jersey banning handheld cell phone use while driving (in favor of hands-free devices), was really a solution to the problem.

In their latest research, Drews and co-researcher David Strayer examined the effects of cell phone use on two groups of drivers that federal statistics suggest are at highest risk for traffic accidents -- the young (between 18 and 25 years of age) and the elderly (between 65 and 74 years of age).

Using hi-tech, virtual-reality driving simulators, they had 20 people from each age group maneuver through busy highway traffic -- first without using a cell phone, and then while engaged in a long cell phone discussion.

While on cell phones, "people exhibit what we call sluggish driving behavior," Drews said. "They basically don't respond to the onset of the pace car's brake lights as well, and they aren't applying their brakes as strongly as someone who's not talking on the cell phone."

For example, in young drivers using cell phones, reaction times in hitting the brakes slowed from an average of eight-tenths of a second to just over nine-tenths of second. That difference may not sound like much, the researchers say, but it's roughly the difference in braking reaction times between a 20-year-old and a 70-year-old.

In terms of virtual-reality "accidents" occurring during the simulation, there were six, all rear-enders. Four of the six occurred while the drivers were talking on cell phones, and only one of those four involved an older driver. The other three involved young motorists, the researchers said.

Drews stressed that these numbers were far too small to reach statistical significance, so no firm conclusions can be drawn as to whether or not cell-phone use ups accident risk. However, he pointed out, "All of the previous studies [on the issue] show more accidents when people are talking on a cell phone than when they aren't."

The study did reveal the good news for elderly drivers: "We expected to find that [cell phone-linked] impairment would be much more when you're old than when you're young," Drews said. "But we found no such interaction." That's probably because older motorists compensate by bringing extra experience and caution to their driving, he added.

The Utah researcher shied away from any recommendation that cell phone use while driving be banned altogether, preferring to let the data speak for itself.

"I'm not a politician, but I think politicians should carefully review the existing literature and make an informed decision about the risks," Drews said. "We as a society have to determine, also, at which point we are no longer willing to take the risks associated with cell phone use while driving."

Drews did point to findings from one other study he helped conduct, however.

"We compared one accepted [legal] threshold of risk -- being legally drunk -- and compared the driving behaviors of people who were drunk vs. people who were on cell phones," he said. "We didn't find a lot of difference."

More information

To learn more about cell phone use and driving, go to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

SOURCES: Frank Drews, Ph.D., assistant professor, psychology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City; Winter 2005 Human Factors
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