In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics, including questions about what's true and not true in the field of medicine. For our July/August 2012 issue, we interviewed a University of Utah researcher about the danger of using a phone behind the wheel.
Q: I've read that driving while talking on a cell phone is as bad as driving drunk. Is that true?
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A: Many people can't imagine not chatting on the phone while driving. But the stories you've heard are TRUE. Cell phone use impairs driving just as much as alcohol.
That's just one of the conclusions by David Strayer, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, who has published a series of articles that show driving while talking on a cell phone -- hands-free or not -- is the same as driving with a blood alcohol level of .08, the legal limit.
In one study he found that talking to a passenger improves driving, because "there is another set of eyes on the road, a person who knows to be quiet if the driving gets difficult."
In his most recent research, Strayer found that a conversation that triggers mental imagery -- a description of a vacation, for instance -- is most disruptive. "Driving and mental imagery both use the same part of the brain," Strayer says. "So the imagery will block out the driving environment. People literally won't see what they're looking at."