Does talking on a cell phone while driving create a dangerous distraction? This has been a very “hot” topic since the inception of cell phones. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), “driver distraction” is a contributing factor in 20-30% of all accidents. One NHTSA survey reported that about 75% of all motorists used their phones while driving. As of 2005, there were about 165 million cellular phones in use in the United States.
A recent study by University of Utah researchers claims that cell phone use while driving significantly interferes with drivers’ attention to their surroundings. The researchers have labeled this supposed phenomenon “inattention blindness,” which they describe as, “the inability to recognize objects encountered in the driver’s visual field.” The findings are published in the March issue of The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Selected portions of the study are featured in the February/March issue of the National Safety Council’s Injury Insights.
Previously, these researchers had reported that talking on cell phones while driving leads to measurable decreases in driver performance. They maintain that diminished driver performance occurs even with hands-free cell phones. They argued that cell phone conversations created much higher levels of distraction than listening to the car stereo. Therefore, they contend that banning hand-held cell phone use, but permitting hands-free devices, does not address the problem. The problem, allegedly, is that phone conversations turn attention away from the “external environment” toward “an internal, cognitive context” (i.e., the phone conversation). It is unclear how the researchers differentiate this form of distraction from that created by conversations with on-board passengers. Perhaps they advocate banning of car-pooling, also?