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Fountain of senescence. Cell phone conversations make young people drive like old people.

Conversations Kill

Most young drivers know that talking on cell phones can distract them from the challenges of the road, but they may finally stop gabbing when they hear the results of a new study: cell phone conversations make young people drive like their grandparents.

Previous studies have found that the attention of young drivers is easily compromised while on the phone, with one indicating that cell phones impair as much as alcohol. As a result, New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, the District of Columbia and a handful of other municipalities have regulated the activity, and other states want to specifically target novice drivers. But no one had looked at how cell phone use affected older drivers and how this compared to use by younger drivers.

To investigate, psychologists David Strayer and Frank Drews at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, placed 40 volunteers in a driving simulator. Half were between 18 and 25 years old, and half were between 65 and 74. The volunteers all followed a pace car for four 16-kilometer trips, and in half of the trips they chatted on a hands-free cell phone. The researchers measured parameters such as the driver's speed, braking time, and following distance.

When drivers of any age were on the phone, they took 18% longer to hit the brakes when the pace car slowed in front of them and they rear-ended it twice as often. Blabbing also caused the drivers to follow the pace car more closely and to take longer to get back up to speed after braking, suggesting cell phone users might make bumper-to-bumper traffic worse. The extent of impairment was the same regardless of age. And that means young people on cell phones drove about as badly as the older people who were not on cell phones, the researchers report this week in the journal Human Factors.

Political scientist Alexander Weiss of the Center for Public Safety at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois says the study is unlikely to have a big effect on laws. Although the work shows that talking on phones makes people less likely to anticipate a car slowing in front of them, accidents are actually rare in real life. And, Weiss predicts, "It will be difficult to get [drivers] to give up their cell phones."

Related sites
Study abstract
Cell phones and driving from the Insurance Information Institute
Automobile Association of America on cell phone safety
David Strayer's Applied Cognition Laboratory