The Scary Truth About Your Cell Phone and Driving

Posted August 24, 2016

You’ve heard about accidents that happened when ?a driver was distracted by texting or yakking away ?on a cell phone. But you may be convinced this could never happen to you because you are great at multitasking on your phone while watching the road.

According to the National Safety Council (NSC), that can be a dangerous assumption. Researchers have found drivers are 4 times more likely to have a wreck if they are talking on handheld or hands-free cell phones. In fact, the NSC estimates that people who use cell phones while driving are involved in 21% of all U.S. traffic crashes.

Researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute tracked real-time behaviors of more than 3,500 drivers for 3 years with radar, sensors and video cameras to learn which distractions were more dangerous than others. The results of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found cell phone use while driving substantially upped the risk of accidents.

Driving while impaired means operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, drugs or sleep deprivation. And the NSC says it is time to add cell phone usage to the list of dangerous — and preventable — causes of driver impairment. According to Injury Facts 2015, the NSC’s annual report on unintentional injuries, the top 3 causes of fatalities on the road last year were alcohol (almost 31%), speeding (30%) and distracted driving, most often caused by cell phones (26%).

Of course, since cell phones are so common in everyday life, it’s hard for many people to believe they pose significant risks to normally careful drivers. But research shows common beliefs about safely driving while using cell phones are potentially dangerous myths.

Myth: You are great at multitasking, so talking on your cell phone while driving is easy and safe for you.

Fact: Driving and talking on your cell phone are different mental tasks that involve multiple parts of the brain. You can’t multitask simultaneously because your brain rapidly switches between 2 cognitive activities. That’s why you can’t give driving and traffic conditions your full attention while using your cell phone, the NSC says.

Myth: Hands-free devices are great because they eliminate the dangers of cell phone use while driving.

Fact: Handheld and hands-free cell phone conversations raise the risk of accidents because they are both distractions. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that activity in the part of the brain that processes moving visual images and is important for safe driving drops almost 40% during conversations — and drivers talking on cell phones can miss seeing up to 50% of their environment while on the road, including not being aware of pedestrians and red lights. This phenomenon, which involves people looking but not actually seeing everything around them, is known as inattention blindness.

Myth: Talking to someone on a cell phone is no different than talking to a passenger in your car.

Fact: A University of Utah study found drivers talking on cell phones are more likely to miss traffic conditions because they are the only ones in the conversation who are aware of the road. On the other hand, when adult passengers are in your car, they provide an extra pair of ears and eyes to keep you alert for traffic and other problems on the road. What’s more, adult passengers typically adjust their conversation when traffic conditions are worrisome. But someone talking to you on your cell phone can’t do that.

The NSC is encouraging drivers to take an online pledge to drive without using their cell phones.?

The NSC offers these tips to help you avoid using your cell phone while driving:

• Make a personal commitment to drive without using your cell phone — and stick to it.

• Avoid the temptation to answer your cell by turning it off or putting it on silent mode.

• When you are a passenger in a car and the driver is using a cell phone, speak up. Ask if the call can wait or offer to make the call for the driver.

• Change your voicemail message so it tells callers you are either away from your phone or driving and you’ll call back when you can.

• If someone calls you and you know they are calling from their car, tell them to hang up and you will talk to them later when they arrive at their destination