Cell Phones and Driving

Issue: Use of cell phones and other mobile devices while driving. Should we allow or not? There is a great deal of cognitive research that now informs this issue.

Most of us are fairly skilled at driving an automobile. We’ve probably engaged in various activities while driving (e.g. listening to the radio, talking with a friend sitting next to us in the car, or drinking a cup of coffee). But what about talking on a cell phone or texting while driving? Is it safe? How does the research on divided attention inform this issue? A few states have passed laws outlawing handheld cell phones but allowing hands free phones (e.g. California). Is this a good idea or not--based on the research? I’ve just put several resources (e.g. videos and articles) here to get you started investigating this issue. You don’t have to read everything but read as many research articles as possible so that you can answer my questions and talk intelligently about this issue. Here are some sample questions that should be addressed:

1. Is it safe to drive while talking on a cell phone?

2. What are the chances of an accident while driving and talking on a cell phone?

3. Some states have passed legislation prohibiting hand-held but not hands-free cell phones. Does this make any sense

4. Compare driving while talking to someone in the car versus driving while talking on a cell phone.

5. Does practice make a difference? Explain

6. Compare driving under the influence to cell phone driving.

7. Solutions to the problem?

Research Articles (all by David Strayer, who studies attention and multitasking):

The following articles are from David Strayer’s research lab that studies attention and multitasking:

Effects of Simulator Practice and Real-World Experience on Cell-Phone–Related Driver Distraction by Cooper & Strayer, published in the journal Human Factors (2008)

Cell-Phone–Induced Driver Distraction by Strayer & Drews published in Current Directions in Psychological Science (2007)

A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver - in the journal Human Factors, 2006

Driven to Distraction: Dual-Task Studies of Simulated Driving and Conversing on a Cellular Telephone by Strayer & Johnston, published in the journal Psychological Science (2001).

You can find research articles on cell phones and driving (or distracted driving) by searching PsyINFO or Google Scholar. Be careful of Google Scholar because it finds everything—the gold and the garbage. PsyINFO restricts searches to psychology-related literature and journals. Note: You can use the Advanced Search function in Google Scholar to search specific journals, though (e.g. Psychological Science; Current Directions in Psychological Science: Journal of Experimental Psychology; etc.)

Video and Other Media

A video interview with Dr. David Strayer, from the University of Utah, who studies cell phone use while driving.

Cell Phones vs. Drunk Driving. These 3 videos are from an episode of MythBusters. The show investigates whether talking on a cellphone while driving is as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol. Which is more dangerous? Watch the entire show ( all 3 videos).

Video 1

Video 2

Video 3

I should point out that there are potential problems with the MythBusters study. It's not a rigorous scientific study. Why not? There are a several problems and potential confounds in their study. Can you identify any of these problems? What about the results of their study? Do the results still agree with the findings from the scientific research literature.

Newspapers and Popular Science Publications: Obviously, the media sometimes do not get the research right or even when they do, they tend to not report enough detail to know how to evaluate its value. You may want to look up the studies to which the newspaper or general science articles refer. Note: many of these are from the New York Times, which based on my experience does a fairly good job on science reporting.

What Clown on a Unicycle? Studying Cellphone Distraction - How much do you miss while walking and talking on a cell phone. An article from the New York Times describing research from Washington University in Bellingham, Washington that shows people can miss quite a bit while talking on a cell phone. Note at the end of the article the citing of research that suggests talking on a cell phone while driving is akin to driving drunk.

Drivers and Legislators Dismiss Cellphone Risks - An excellent article from the New York Times, July 18th, 2009. Partly a story about the personal tragedy of an individual who killed someone while driving and talking on his cell phone, but also about the research on this issue and what’s being done about it.

Doubts About Scare Tactics on Drivers Who Text - from the New York Times (about videos designed to scare people away from texting while driving)

Multitasking In The Car: Just Like Drunken Driving - Transcription of an audio show broadcast on NPR last October (2008). Some of the evidence is brain-based and the researchers mentioned (e.g. Marcel Just) are top notch cognitive researchers in the field. You can read the transcript or listen to the original broadcast.

Talking Distractions: Why Cell Phones And Driving Don't Mix -- from the Science Daily (June, 2008). The Science Daily does a good job in my experience reporting scientific research and always has links to the source of the research so you can look up more information for yourself.

In Study, Texting Lifts Crash Risk by Large Margin - An article from the New York Times about texting, which many studies have found raises the risk of a collision 23 times. Research was done by the Virginia Techn Transportation Institute. I believe this research or some other research done by this institute has tried to argue that the risks of cell phone use while driving are not as large as claimed by other studies--their argument is that real-world studies and simulators produce different pictures of what’s going on. To the best of my knowledge, this would be the ONLY claim my any research done to date that cell phones do not significantly increase the risk of accidents. Your own investigation of the research may help decide.

The Truth About Cars and Cellphones - brief editorial from the New York Times (July, 2009) about the risks of cell phone use while driving

Utah Gets Tough With Texting Drivers - from NYT (Aug 28, 2009)