Tags: Cell | Phones | Wreck | Driver | Concentration

Cell Phones Wreck Driver Concentration

Monday, 12 December 2005 12:00 AM

New studies from NASA Ames Research Center in California show what you probably suspected but hoped wasn't true - talking on the phone devastates people's ability to drive safely.

Dr. Mei-Ching Lien and her colleagues asked volunteers to respond to a variety of auditory and visual cues and measured their responses.

When the volunteers prepared for one task, such as responding to the color red, their responses were swift and accurate. When the researchers added a second element – the recognition of shapes as well as color – the task switch considerably delayed the responses, even when the volunteers were prepared for it.

"People are surprised that there is such a delay," Lien said. "Practice can help a person reduce the 'cost' of switching tasks, but it apparently cannot eliminate that cost."

Lien said the study can be applied to the real world, especially to drivers who talk on cell phones. On the surface, she said, it appears that drivers are trying to accomplish just two tasks – driving and conversing. But each task is complicated and multi-faceted, greatly increasing the "cost" of switching. The result: inattention and slow reaction times.

"A lot of people think talking on the cell phone while driving is natural, but each time someone asks a question or changes the subject, it's like taking on a new task," Lien said. "It requires a certain amount of thought and preparation. It's actually quite different than listening to the radio, where you don't need to respond.

"And it's also different from talking to a passenger in the vehicle," she added. "In most cases, a passenger can observe when there is a dangerous traffic situation and keep quiet. But someone calling you on a cell phone won't have a clue."

There are individual differences in the costs of multi-tasking, Lien said. In her lab studies, a typical response to a single stimulus might take 300 milliseconds. Adding a second task increases the response to about 800 milliseconds. A millisecond is 1/1000th of a second, so the delay may not seem like much – until you extend the difference to a car driving 60 miles an hour and realize the response rate more than doubles, Lien said.

Lien has yet to find anyone who is immune to delays in multi-tasking, though she says some students, usually computer game players, do much better than others.

While Lien's studies suggest that simplifying tasks leads to greater efficiency, technology is complicating everything we do – including driving. Drivers often use cell phones, CD players, global positioning systems, radar detectors, complicated dashboards and other devices. At the same time, they must navigate increasing traffic, read a plethora of signs, and handle other distractions.

"There is a cost for switching from one task to another and that cost can be in response time or in accuracy," Lien said. "We may be undermining our ability to drive safely."

Results of the study appears in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

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New studies from NASA Ames Research Center in California show what you probably suspected but hoped wasn't true - talking on the phone devastates people's ability to drive safely. Dr. Mei-Ching Lien and her colleagues asked volunteers to respond to a variety of auditory...
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2005-00-12
Monday, 12 December 2005 12:00 AM
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