Cell Phone Traffic

  by  |  February 29th, 2008  |  Published in All, Health, Technology


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Attention commuters! Researchers have found that when you talk on your cell phone, even when you’re using a hands free device, you’re slowing down traffic. As this ScienCentral News video reports, scientists figured this out using traffic simulators.

Motor Mouths

If the safety hazards of talking on the phone while driving weren’t bad enough, researchers have now shown that motor mouths also cost other commuters significant time, money and health risks from pollution exposure.

In a study presented to the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies, psychologist David Strayer and his colleagues at the University of Utah used driving simulators to approximate the experience of driving in various levels of traffic.

The simulators, which are the same kind used to train police officers, create a realistic depiction of driving in city and highway environments. Using a computer connected to the simulator, researchers can measure a number of simulated variables, including crash risk, following distance, and even a driver’s ability to stay in one lane. As Strayer explains, “what we have is a fairly sophisticated replication of what you’d see in a car, but we can take very good measures of how people are driving.”

In his past research, Strayer has used simulators like this to observe a number of different driving behaviors. But for this latest study, he was interested in one overarching question: does cell phone use while driving affect the flow of traffic?

To tackle this problem, Strayer and his team recruited a group of undergraduate participants from the University of Utah and put them in the simulator. The participants were asked to drive through a number of simulated traffic conditions, varying from lower to higher levels of traffic density. They were also asked to drive while being distracted by a number of variables, including talking over hands-free and handheld cell phones.

The researchers plugged the data from all of the participants into a model of traffic flow, which, as Strayer explains, “allow us to estimate the quality of a commute, how well you’re commuting.”

The results may not come as much of a surprise to most commuters. “We were able to show that as you add more and more drivers to the highway who are using their cellphone,” Strayer says, “that the commute time for everybody increases.”

The researchers specifically noted that cell phone drivers move at slower speeds, change lanes less frequently, and lengthen their following distance. All of these factors slow the flow of traffic, and the effect gets worse with each new distracted driver. Strayer and his team also discovered that there is no measurable difference between drivers who use hand-held and hands-free cell phones. The distraction level is exactly the same.

But what does all this mean for the rest of us?

Nothing good, that’s for sure. As Strayer puts it, “If you have an hour commute each way, figure that maybe twelve minutes each day, extra, is spent because you are struck in traffic because of other people who are distracted.” He estimates that we could spend an extra 40 to 50 hours each year in traffic thanks to drivers using cell phones.

But it is not just the added irritation from extra commute time that is troubling. More time spent driving also means more air pollution, greater gas consumption, and higher levels of driving-induced stress for everyone. Worst of all, distracted drivers like cell phone users are more likely to be involved in accidents. In fact, the Strayer says that cell phone drivers have “accident rates that are about the same as if you had drivers on the highway who are intoxicated at .08 level.”

Strayer hopes that by making the public and policy makers aware of these hidden costs, new and more informed legislation may emerge to reduce the number of drivers out there talking on their cell phones. After all, anyone should be able to see that using a cell phone while driving is an accident waiting to happen.


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