Have you ever driven somewhere and been behind someone that you knew was using their cell phone? The other driver may be driving especially slow, go across several lanes of traffic at one time, be unaware of merging drivers, or appear to be driving erratically. Nearly three quarters of drivers in one survey reported that they always or often see other drivers texting or talking on a cell phone (Nationwide, 2009). Four out of five cell phone owners admit to using their cell phones while driving (Nationwide Insurance, 2008). In 2009, almost 6,000 people were killed and a half-million were injured in crashes related to driver distraction (NHTSA, 2010).
People do not turn off their connection to the outside world when they get into their cars. They continue using their cell phones to connect with loved ones or conduct business. Yet, our brain is not capable of fully concentrating on two things simultaneously. Our brain has what is called a cognitive load—an amount of mental activity that it can engage in at one time. If you are texting or engaged in a cell phone conversation while driving, that leaves your brain with less cognitive load to focus on driving. Consequently, your driving is not as good as it could be. Granted, if you have years and years of driving experience, this skill will require less cognitive load. Yet, younger people are more likely to use their cell phones while driving—a group that has fewer years of experience driving. Conversely, older people may have lots of years of driving experience but may have less experience with the new technology.
Some may argue that talking on a cell phone while driving is no different than conversing with a passenger in your car. However, research (Drews, Pasupathi, & Strayer, 2008) suggests otherwise. Passengers share the same context. Conversation flows more or less with the demands placed on the driver. Passengers can make the driver aware of any road conditions or can suspend conversation when driving conditions intensify. We are also more likely to tell passengers to wait or hold on if we need to divert our mental energy to driving. The person on the other end of a cell phone conversation or text lacks this context and is less likely to be told to wait.
Many studies support the notion that using cell phones while driving is risky. Text messaging and conversing on either a handheld or hands-free cell phone while driving slows reaction time more than being drunk or high (Drews et al., 2009; Strayer, Drews, & Crouch, 2006). Text messaging takes drivers’ eyes off the road for the longest time compared to drivers talking on a cell phone and those not using a phone. Drivers who are text messaging also show more missed lane changes, and vary more in their lane positions and following distances (Hosking, Young, & Regan, 2009). Drivers who use a cell phone while driving are four times more likely to be involved in a crash.
Given this research, how can psychology professors convince students not to drive and use their cell phones? One way is to show students a British public service announcement video that chillingly illustrates the disastrous effects of distracted driving. Additionally, demonstrate for students the effect of cell phone use on their reaction time. Have students stand in a line. Ask them to place their non-cell phone hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them. First take a baseline measure of their reaction time. On your go, the person at the back of the line is instructed to squeeze the shoulder of the person in front of him or her. When that person feels the squeeze, he or she squeezes the shoulder of the next person in the line, who then squeezes the next and so on. Time how long it takes for the squeeze to get through to the last person in the line.
Next, ask students to call someone on their cell phone. When students are talking on their phone, again tell them to go and measure how long it takes now. Typically, it will take several seconds longer for the squeeze to make it through the line. Last, have them text someone while performing the same activity. Measure their reaction time while texting and squeezing, while at the same time observing students’ behavior. Many students aren’t even looking up when they are texting! Remind students that they are simulating texting and driving and will need to look at the road. On many occasions, the squeeze never makes it to the end as the students’ attention is compromised by their texting. After the demonstration, discuss what the difference in reaction times under each condition could mean on the road. Hopefully, these exercises will “make real” for the student why distracted driving is dangerous.
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Hosking, S.G., Young, K.L., & Regan, M.A. (2009). The effects of text messaging on young
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National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (September, 2010) Traffic Safety Facts:
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Nationwide Insurance, (2008). Driving while Distracted: Research Results. Retrieved on
February 16, 2012 from http://www.nationwide.com/newsroom/press-release-almost-all-
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Strayer, D.L., Drews, F.A., & Crouch, D.J. (2006).A comparison of the cell phone driver and the
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