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Young Cell Phone Users Drive Like the Elderly

Talking on a Cell Phone While Driving Slows Reaction Times

WebMD Health News

Feb. 3, 2005 - Talking on a cell phone while driving can turn a normally attentive young driver into a virtual senior citizen behind the wheel, according to a new study.

"If you put a 20-year-old driver behind the wheel with a cell phone, their reaction times are the same as a 70-year-old driver who is not using a cell phone. It's like instantly aging a large number of drivers," says researcher David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, in a news release.

The study also showed that drivers who talked on cell phones, regardless of their age, took longer to regain speed after hitting the brakes and slowed the normal flow of traffic, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever been stuck behind a sluggish driver chatting away on a cell phone.

The results of the study appear in this winter's issue of Human Factors, the quarterly journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

In the study, researchers compared the driving skills of 20 older adults (ages 65 to 74) and 20 younger adults (ages 18 to 25) with normal vision and a driver's license in a high-tech driving simulator. The participants used the steering wheel, dashboard instruments, and brake and gas pedals from a Ford Crown Victoria sedan and were surrounded by three screens showing freeway scenes and traffic.

Each driver drove four simulated 10-mile freeway trips, talking on a hands-free cell phone with a research assistant for half the trips and without talking for the other half. A pace car intermittently hit its brakes as it appeared in front of the participants, and if the driver failed to hit their own brakes, they would eventually rear-end the pace car.

The results showed that drivers who talked on cell phones, of any age, were 18% slower in hitting their brakes than drivers who didn't use cell phones. The drivers chatting on cell phones also had a 12% greater following distance, which researchers say is an effort to compensate for paying less attention to road conditions, and took 17% longer to regain the speed they lost when they hit the brakes.

When young drivers used cell phones, researchers found the reaction time in hitting the brakes slowed to match that of elderly drivers who did not talk on cell phones, an average of about nine-tenths of a second. When not talking on cell phones, young motorists hit the brakes within an average of almost eight-tenths of a second.

Researchers say that difference may seem small, but it represents a 17% slower reaction time.

Strayer says other studies have shown that that much of a decrease in reaction time increases both the likelihood and severity of accidents.

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