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Cell Phone Chats Are Risky for Drivers

Study Shows Talking on Cell Phone Riskier Than Talking to a Passenger
By Caroline Wilbert
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 1, 2008 -- Drivers, here's one more reason to turn off your cell phones. A new study shows that drivers make more mistakes when talking on cell phones than they do when talking to other passengers.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Researchers analyzed the driving performance of 41 pairs of mostly young adults in a simulated driving situation. Drivers were paired with friends who acted as conversation partners.

The drivers were divided into three groups. One group of drivers talked on hands-free cell phones to their conversation partners. The second group chatted with passengers who sat beside them during the simulated driving experience. The third group did not have any conversations.

Conversation partners, whether chatting via cell phone or sitting next to the driver, were supposed to tell a story about a near-death experience.

The average age of the participants was 20. They all had valid driver's licenses in Utah.

The driving experience was designed to mimic a real-life experience on the highway. Other cars on the road sped up and changed lanes, abiding by traffic laws. There were on-ramps and off-ramps, overpasses, and two lanes of traffic in each direction. Drivers were asked to exit at a specific rest stop about eight miles from the start of the drive.

The passengers talking on cell phones demonstrated significantly worse driving performance, according to the researchers. Cell phone talkers veered more into other lanes and were four times more likely to miss the exit to the rest stop.

Researchers analyzed the conversations and speech patterns and offered a handful of possible explanations for the difference in driving performance. One possible explanation: passengers often discussed the traffic conditions. This tells researchers that talking to a passenger may be safer than talking to a remote caller because the passenger becomes a partner in the driving experience.

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