Drivers Need To Keep Not Only Their Hands On The Wheel; They Also Have To Keep Their Brains On The Road,” Said Neuroscientist

28 Jun

On September 28th, 2006 California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that prohibits the use of handheld mobile phones while driving in the state.

Effective July 1, 2008, the legislation prohibits drivers from using a wireless telephone while operating a motor vehicle unless the driver uses a hands-free device. Drivers who violate the law will face a base fine of $20 for a first offense and $50 for each subsequent offense. The law allows drivers to use a wireless telephone for emergency purposes, drivers of commercial vehicles to use push-to-talk phones until July 1, 2011, and allow drivers of emergency response vehicles to use a cell phone without a hands-free device.

California joins Connecticut, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, New York, and some local jurisdictions in prohibiting the use of handheld mobile phones while driving.

Driving While Distracted (DWD)With July 1st about to set upon us I have been wondering just “how much safer” are we going to be when California drivers switch over to hands free cell phones? Unfortunately, the weight of the evidence suggests that hands free or not, cell phone use while driving is downright dangerous; it’s a distraction that takes away part of your attention which SHOULD be devoted to driving, and allocates it to conversation instead. That’s not safe no matter how you look at it.

In this study from Carnegie Mellon, it appears that even just the act of listening reduces significant attention resources:

The use of cell phones, including dialing and texting, has long been a safety concern for drivers. But the Carnegie Mellon study, for the first time, used brain imaging to document that listening alone reduces by 37 percent the amount of brain activity associated with driving. This can cause drivers to weave out of their lane, based on the performance of subjects using a driving simulator.

The findings, to be reported in an upcoming issue of the journal Brain Research, show that making cell phones hands-free or voice-activated is not sufficientin eliminating distractions to drivers. “Drivers need to keep not only their hands on the wheel; they also have to keep their brains on the road,” said neuroscientist Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging.

In addition, the study describes that cell phone use:

…causes drivers to commit some of the same types of driving errors that can occur under the influence of alcohol.

On February 1, 2005 LiveScience published an article which states in part:

“Once drivers on cell phones hit the brakes, it takes them longer to get back into the normal flow of traffic,” Strayer said. “The net result is they are impeding the overall flow of traffic.”

Cell phone distraction causes 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries in the United States every year, according to the journal’s publisher, the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

The reason is now obvious: Drivers talking on cell phones were 18 percent slower to react to brake lights, the new study found. In a minor bright note, they also kept a 12 percent greater following distance. But they also took 17 percent longer to regain the speed they lost when they braked. That frustrates everyone.

The Journal Human Factors and Ergonomics Society published a study In June, 2006 titled: A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver which found that “When drivers were conversing on either a handheld or hands-free cell phone, their braking reactions were delayed and they were involved in more traffic accidents than when they were not conversing on a cell phone.”

Objective: The objective of this research was to determine the relative impairment associated with conversing on a cellular telephone while driving.

Background: Epidemiological evidence suggests that the relative risk of being in a traffic accident while using a cell phone is similar to the hazard associated with driving with a blood alcohol level at the legal limit. The purpose of this research was to provide a direct comparison of the driving performance of a cell phone driver and a drunk driver in a controlled laboratory setting.

Method: We used a high-fidelity driving simulator to compare the performance of cell phone drivers with drivers who were intoxicated from ethanol (i.e., blood alcohol concentration at 0.08% weight/volume).

Results: When drivers were conversing on either a handheld or hands-free cell phone, their braking reactions were delayed and they were involved in more traffic accidents than when they were not conversing on a cell phone. By contrast, when drivers were intoxicated from ethanol they exhibited a more aggressive driving style, following closer to the vehicle immediately in front of them and applying more force while braking.

Conclusion: When driving conditions and time on task were controlled for, the impairments associated with using a cell phone while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunk.

Application: This research may help to provide guidance for regulation addressing driver distraction caused by cell phone conversations.

Perhaps the funds collected from citations could be used to address drivers who do something else while driving — eating, talking on a telephone, putting on makeup, scolding children, even doing a crossword puzzle — in a public awareness campaign warning that such distractions can be dangerous, even deadly. Driving While Distracted (DWD)



REF: Carnegie Mellon University (2008, March 6). Just Listening To Cell Phones Significantly Impairs Drivers, Study Shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 23, 2008, from­ /releases/2008/03/080305104905.htm 

REF: University of Utah (2005, February 1). Drivers on Cell Phones Kill Thousands, Snarl Traffic By Britt,Robert Roy . LiveScience. Retrieved June 23, 2008 from

REF: Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, Volume 48, Number 2, Summer 2006 , pp. 381-391(11) Authors: Strayer, David L.; Drews, Frank A.; Crouch, Dennis J.


Posted by on June 28, 2008 in Science News


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2 responses to “Drivers Need To Keep Not Only Their Hands On The Wheel; They Also Have To Keep Their Brains On The Road,” Said Neuroscientist

  1. Michael U.

    June 30, 2008 at 7:52 AM

    What you want them to try something new and actually pay attention to their driving? I agree, long before the cell phones were everywhere people failed at driving. You name it, music, food, coffee or more there has always seemed to be something distracting drivers. I think that it is a good step but not enough.

  2. Knucklehead

    December 5, 2008 at 9:41 AM

    The new law is absolutely useless and an embarrassment to people who have an IQ over 3.

    Come on idiots it IS NOT ILLEGAL to have both hands on a phone to create a text message?

    I saw a lady driving to church last week who almost ran me off the road with my family in my car and her three kids in her Vanagon too, by the intense attention she was paying to the phone and not the road, she apparently was texting someone, absolutely flabbergasts me as I’m making avoidance maneuvers to save us from a crash.

    I’m on my way to Thanksgiving and I see a guy texting with both hands next to me while he was trying to keep control of his car with his wrists on the wheel, and this is not illegal?

    There IS A mental disconnect from the road while trying to do anything but drive a car, period.

    Personally I use a voice command phone with a Bluetooth-FM device on my sun visor. My hands don’t touch the phone once I’m rolling; the Motorola T505 actually SPEAKS the caller’s phone number so I don’t have to touch the phone, and YES it’s that easy.

    I have taken a personal count many times while sitting at a signal to see how many people are on the phone, typically it between 30-50% and that is with the phone held to their head! So 50% of the car control DURING A TURN is missing, come on California drivers, WAKE UP and DRIVE.

    However there is an upside to all of this, natural selection (or lack of common sense) may kill these obviously inept drivers, downside may kill innocent victims in the process.


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