Friday, February 10, 2012

Cell Phone Use by Passengers Can Also be a Distraction for Drivers

Unless you've been hanging out in Osama bin Laden's cave for the past few years, by now you're well aware of the potential dangers of cell phone use while driving. News reports abound of studies which outline what a distraction it can be, and you have probably encountered a few personal experiences yourself on the road in dealing with other drivers that attest to their truthfulness. I know I've navigated around several near-collisions to avoid a clueless driver distracted by a cell phone, and I doubt I'm alone.

But it turns out cell-phones in the car may be problematic even when it isn't the driver who is using them. Using a clever way to test drivers, a recent study in the September 3rd Psychological Science proves that cell-phone use by a passenger can also be deadly distracting. And it all involves the way our brain's process communication in our surroundings.

When someone around us is talking on a cell phone, we can't help but listen. It's wired into our brains. It's like putting a toddler in an empty room with a big red button on the wall--you know that button will call to them, begging to be pushed. Cell phone conversations are unique from ordinary chatter around us, in that we only hear half of the conversation. This creates a riddle that instantly draws our brains attention, even without our conscious awareness. We embark on the task of trying to fill in the blanks, to make whole this incomplete dialogue that hijacks our attention. When we're driving, this decrease in attention can result in a drop in safety.

To test this effect, Cornell University psychologist Lauren Emberson had participants complete a series of tasks while listening to several different types of conversational recordings: a woman recapping a cell phone conversation in a monologue, two women talking to each other on a cell phone in which both parties could be heard, and a woman talking to an unheard person in the “halfalogue” that we encounter when someone around us is talking on a cell phone.

They then tested participants on a couple of driving-related and concentration skill tasks. When trying to keep a cursor as close as possible to a moving dot on a computer screen, the performance among subjects dipped significantly while listening to the halfalogue, but not while listening to the other two conversation types. In a second task, participants were asked to remember four letters, and hit a computer key as quickly as possible whenever one of those letters appeared on a screen, all while ignoring any other letters-a task designed to test response times and general awareness. Once again, performance declined while listening to halfalogues compared to full conversations. Though the effect was not as noticeable on this test, it was still statistically significant.

So all in all, when someone is listening to halfalogue because a person around them is talking on a cell phone, driving performance dips. Brain-to-motor-skills plummet, they lose concentration, and their response time dips...all crucial detriments to motorists navigating traffic signals or potential hazards on the road. “Drivers should be aware that one's attention is drawn away from current tasks by overhearing someone on a cell phone, at least in our attention-demanding lab tasks, and that this effect is beyond conscious control,” says Emberson.

It's still uncertain precisely how much of a detriment passenger cell-phone use is in the real world as compared to other hazards such as regular cell phone use, drowsy driving, texting, or impaired driving. But it is clear that having a passenger use a cell phone in the car is a measurable distraction for the driver--and this would be especially true for teen drivers, who are still honing their driving skills, and thus need all the attention and coordination they can muster. This is why the “no cell phone use in the car” rule should apply to passengers as well as drivers.

You might also share this article with them. Knowing why these rules are created, and that they're created for a reason and not just dreamed up out of nowhere to provide unnecessary or arbitrary regulation by which to torment them, often goes a long way towards getting your teen to adhere to such restrictions.