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We used to hear the third statement from friends all the time.  It has been shown pretty conclusively to be wrong.  It turns out, all three of those statements are equally wrong.  Peer-reviewed studies have shown that people have nearly identical response times and failure rates when legally drunk, tired, or talking on the phone.  For example, here's a statistical study (PDF viewer required.  Local copy) which puts the danger of an accident at four times normal.  That's nearly identical to driving when legally drunk.

The paper touches on the differences between driving drunk and cell phone use.   For example, the greater the blood alcohol level, the greater the danger.   There's no analogous way to increase the danger while on the phone.  Also, someone driving drunk is a danger for the entire trip.  On a cell phone, the window of danger is usually much shorter.  Unless the driver is someone who spends the majority of their driving time on the phone.  And finally, a person is capable of dropping the phone and becoming fully attentive within a couple of seconds, which is impossible for a drunk.

But it sometimes takes less than a second for a driving situation to go from a minor annoyance that you steer around to very dangerous.  If you're having a conversation that you consider important then you're far less likely to be paying close attention to the traffic situation around you.

Driving a car is incredibly dangerous for most people even when they are paying close attention.  It strikes me as criminally careless to consciously add an unnecessary distraction.

That's the most common come-back I hear when discussing this with friends and family.   And the study above shows that it's wrong.  People with hands-free appear to be actually more likely to be in an accident.  Yes, many people are particularly distracted while dialing, and therefore obviously even more dangerous.  But the holding-the-phone-to-your-ear part of talking on the phone is mindless and adds only minimally to the problem.  The major contributor is the distraction of the conversation itself.

I'm guessing it's a self-selector.  In other words, the people who go through the extra hassle and spend the extra money to get a hands-free setup are the ones who spend the most time on the phone.  More time on the phone has been shown to equal more accidents.

Think of it this way.  When you're sitting at the office talking on the phone, what usually happens?  Most people try to get something else done while they're talking.  But most of the time they'll have to stop what they're doing in order to concentrate on the phone conversation.  That's fine in an office environment, or at home.  But in a car, even a few seconds of lapsed attention can be dangerous.

Drivers on the phone have common driving habit which are often easy to spot from quite a distance away.  They are often driving at least ten miles per hour slower than surrounding traffic.  And they usually start to change lanes without looking.   They're already crossing the line before they turn their heads to see if it's clear.  And some weave within their lane.  All three traits show a distinct lack of awareness.

And did you notice how similar those descriptions fit someone who's driving drunk?

I have one friend who would sometimes call me while she was driving.  She usually made the call while at a stop light, so at least she wasn't dialing while driving.   As soon as I heard her car rev up as she pulled away from the light, I'd cut the conversation off.

Get off the phone, people.  It's dangerous.

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Last modified: January 25, 2003
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