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A Passenger Using The Cellphone Is Distraction For Drivers

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

A Passenger Using The Cellphone Is Distraction For Drivers

Katie McCoy
January 14, 2014


By now we are well aware of the potential dangers of cell phone use while driving. Studies and news reports abound which outline what a distraction cell phones can be, and you have probably had a few personal experiences yourself on the road. I know I've navigated around several near-collisions to avoid a clueless driver distracted with a phone held to their ear. I doubt I'm alone.

But it turns out cell-phones in the car may be a problem even when it isn't the driver who is using them. Using a clever way to test drivers, a study in the Psychological Science proves that cell-phone use by a passenger can also be deadly distracting. It all involves the way our brain's process communication in our surroundings.

When someone around us is talking on a cell phone, we can't help but listen. It's wired into our brains. It's like putting a toddler in an empty room with a big red button on the wall--you know that button will call to them, begging to be pushed. Cell phone conversations are uniquely different from ordinary chatter around us because we only hear half of the conversation. This creates a riddle that instantly draws our brains attention, even without our conscious awareness. We then embark on the task of trying to fill in the blanks, to make whole this incomplete dialogue that hijacks our attention. When we're driving, this decrease in attention can result in a drop in our safety.

To test this effect, Cornell University psychologist Lauren Emberson had participants complete a series of tasks while listening to several different types of conversational recordings: a woman recapping a cell phone conversation in a monologue, two women talking to each other on a cell phone in which both parties could be heard, and a woman talking to an unheard person in the "halfalogue" that we encounter when someone around us is talking on a cell phone.

Then they tested participants on a couple of driving-related and concentration skill tasks. While trying to keep a cursor as close as possible to a moving dot on a computer screen, the performance among subjects dipped significantly when listening to the halfalogue, but not while listening to the other two conversation types. In a second task, participants were asked to remember four letters, then hit a computer key as quickly as possible whenever one of those letters appeared on a screen, all while ignoring any other letters-a task designed to test response times and general awareness. Once again, performance declined while listening to halfalogues compared to full conversations. Though the effect was not as noticeable on this test, it was still statistically significant.

When someone is listening to only half of the conversation because one of their passengers is talking on a cell phone, driving performance dips. Brain-to-motor-skills plummet, they lose concentration, and their response time dips...all crucial detriments to motorists who are navigating traffic signals or potential hazards on the road. "Drivers should be aware that one's attention is drawn away from current tasks by overhearing someone on a cell phone, at least in our attention-demanding lab tasks, and that this effect is beyond conscious control," says Emberson.

It is still uncertain how much of a detriment that passenger cell-phone use is in the real world in comparison to other hazards such as regular cell phone use, drowsy driving, texting, or impaired driving. But it is clear that having a passenger use a cell phone in the car is a measurable distraction for the driver. This would be especially true for teen drivers, who are still learning their driving skills, and thus need all the attention and coordination that they can muster. This is why the "no cell phone use in the car" rule should apply to passengers as well as drivers.

You might also share this article with your teens. It helps them to knowing why these rules are created, that they're created for a reason, and not just dreamed up out of nowhere by parents to provide unnecessary regulation by which to torment them. This often goes a long way towards getting your teen to adhere to such restrictions.


Car safety and safe driving information provided by Global Children's Fund. Learn about the latest child safety news on our award winning blog.



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