It has been assumed driving while speaking on a hand-held phone is distracting because it is being held and interferes with the driver's ability to control the vehicle. But a group of psychologists at the University of Sussex have concluded this is not so. It is the part of the brain used in mental imaging while speaking on a phone that is the real problem and there is virtually no difference between hand-held and hands-free phones when it comes to distracted driving.
In one test
, 60 people were put in driving simulators. Half had nothing to distract them while the other half heard a voice. The simulator provided dangerous situations where the driver was forced to react. It was determined those who were spoken to took longer to react to these emergency situations.
As an example, the driver was asked where they left something. According to researchers, the driver would then imagine the room where the object may have been left. As part of the brain was used to imagine the room, less of the brain was used in watching the road ahead. The study determined the area of the road the driver was focused on was about four times smaller than that of a driver who was not distracted. The driver was distracted, not by the phone but by the mental image of the place where the object was last seen.
In a second test, half the participants were asked a series of true or false questions. The study found those hearing and answering the questions missed more road hazards and had slower reaction times than those who were not distracted by anything. Some questions were simple questions while others forced the driver to use imagination to picture something in order to determine if it was true or false.
The more the questions invited the use of the imagination, the more distracted the driver became. When hearing questions that necessitated the use of imagination, drivers were found to have missed about 50 percent of the hazards drivers who were not distracted saw.
Dr. Graham Hole
, who led the study, concluded talking with a passenger is not as distracting as speaking on the phone. If there is a hazard ahead, passengers will usually see it and stop talking while someone on the other end of the phone has no idea what is actually happening.
Brake is a road safety organization in the U.K. Lucy Amos, a researcher with Brake said
this study is just the latest in concluding all phone use by drivers is dangerous. Brake, as well as others, is calling for banning drivers from using hands-free phones as well as hand-held ones.
The study has been published in the Transportation Research Journal.