July 12, 2001


Contact: Ranjit Arab, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

Hands-free cell phones no safer for drivers, says prof

LAWRENCE -- The New York State law banning drivers from using handheld cellular phones is seen by most people as a step in the right direction. However, a University of Kansas professor who has done extensive research on driver distractions says it's more like a step sideways.

"They didn't ban all cell phones; they said that people who bought hands-free cell phones could get their fines removed, which is really missing the point entirely because hands-free cell phones are no safer than hands-on cell phones. It's the conversation -- not touching the buttons on the keypad -- that is critical," said Paul Atchley, assistant professor of psychology.

Currently, 35 other states are considering legislation similar to the New York law. But Atchley, who has conducted several studies on drivers' visual attention, said lawmakers are misguided if they think accidents will decrease simply by moving cell phones from driver's hands and placing them on dashboards.

"It's not having your hands taken away, it's having your mind taken away from the road. As people who drive a standard car -- or stick shift -- know, you can drive a car with one hand, because you have one hand on the stick. But when you start talking, it's not the actual holding onto the object that's important, it's the planning of the conversation, which takes away resources from attending to the road," he said.

According to cognitive studies conducted by Atchley and colleagues both at KU and across the nation, the average person is only capable of dividing their attention among four objects at any given time. Throw a cell phone conversation into the mix while driving, and it's a recipe for disaster, he said.

"In a cellular phone conversation, it's not just the process of listening. Not only do you have to listen, but you also have to think about what the person is saying, and plan for your response, and that's taking some resources that you would be using to plan to drive," he said.

Cell phone proponents have argued that the devices are no more distracting than radios, CD players or in-car conversations. Atchley disagrees.

"The research so far has shown that other things are not as distracting," he said. "It's easier to turn off that particular distraction. Most of us, when we are driving and the traffic is really heavy, just ignore the radio. We can selectively turn that off."

Similarly, in-car conversations differ from cell phone conversations because both parties have an immediate feel for the flow of traffic and can discontinue the conversation when traffic gets too hectic.

Because this is a relatively new area of research, Atchley said there is little quantitative research out there that details the connection between cell phone usage and traffic accidents. Still, he points to the 1997 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine by Donald Redemeier of the University of Toronto and Robert Tibshirani of Stanford University. They found that cell phone conversations while driving -- whether hands-on or hands-free -- quadrupled the likelihood of an accident. Those researchers have since revisited the study and now say that they may have underestimated the risk.

Furthermore, he said, the cell phone industry hasn't been forthcoming with its own safety-related research.

"The interesting thing is that automobile manufacturers actually have simulation facilities where they look at how these devices affect in-car driving performance. They've had these facilities for years and they haven't really released any information that these devices are safe," Atchley said. "You'd think that if you were going to market a product, you would release the safety data -- if you have it -- to indicate it's safe."

Until more quantitative research is gathered and made available to the public, it might take more unfortunate high-profile accidents, like the recent one involving supermodel Nikki Taylor, to make the general public -- and lawmakers -- understand the hazards associated with cell phone use and driving.

"One aspect that disturbs me is the idea that people think they have a right to have a cell phone or they really need to use a cell phone. It's not your right if it's a public safety issue," he said.

In the meantime, Atchley said he hopes that more states consider banning people from using cell phones -- of all varieties -- while driving.

"I think cell phones do have merits -- they clearly can help in emergency situations," he said. "But in those kinds of situations, if it really is an emergency, you should be pulled over anyway. You shouldn't be trying to deal with any emergency while driving, unless there were some really unique circumstances."


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