The University of Utah psychologists conducted the alcohol study because a 1997 study by other researchers evaluated the cell phone records of 699 people involved in motor vehicle accidents and found one-fourth of them had used their phone in the 10 minutes before their accident – a four-fold increase in accidents compared with undistracted motorists.
Those researchers speculated there was a comparable risk from drunken driving and cell phone use while driving. So Strayer and Drews conducted a controlled laboratory study.
The study included 25 men and 15 women ages 22 to 34 who were social drinkers (three to five drinks per week) recruited via newspaper advertisements. Two-thirds used a cell phone while driving. Each participant was paid $100 for 10 hours in the study.
The driving simulator has a steering wheel, dashboard instruments and brake and gas pedals from a Ford Crown Victoria sedan. The driver is surrounded by three screens showing freeway scenes. Each simulated daylight freeway drive lasted 15 minutes. The pace car intermittently braked to mimic stop-and-go traffic. Drivers who fail to hit their brakes eventually rear-end the pace car. Other simulated vehicles occasionally passed in the left lane, giving the impression of steady traffic flow.
Each study participant drove the simulator during three sessions – undistracted, drunk or talking to a research assistant on a cell phone – each on a different day.
The simulator recorded driving speed, following distance, braking time and how long it would take to collide with the pace car if brakes were not used.
The study was funded by a $25,000 grant from the Federal Aviation Administration – which is interested in impaired attention among pilots – and by Strayer's and Drews' salaries. The Utah Highway Patrol loaned the researchers a device to measure blood-alcohol levels.
Driving while Distracted: A Growing Problem
The researchers cited figures from the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association indicating that more than 100 million U.S. motorists use cell phones while driving. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that at any given moment during daylight hours, 8 percent of all drivers are talking on a cell phone.
"Fortunately, the percentage of drunk drivers at any time is much lower," Drews says. "So it means the risk of talking on a cell phone and driving is probably much higher than driving intoxicated because more people are talking on cell phones while driving than are driving drunk." The main reason there are not more accidents is that "92 percent of drivers are not on a cell phone and are compensating for drivers on cell phones," he adds.
Cell phone use is far from the only distraction for motorists. The researchers cite talking to passengers, eating, drinking, lighting cigarettes, applying makeup and listening to the radio as the "old standards" of driver distraction.
"However, over the last decade many new electronic devices have been developed, and they are making their way into the vehicle," the researchers write. "Drivers can now surf the Internet, send and receive e-mail or faxes, communicate via a cellular device and even watch television. There is good reason to believe that some of these new multitasking activities may be substantially more distracting than the old standards because they are more cognitively engaging and because they are performed over longer periods of time."
Lee Siegel | EurekAlert!
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