Driving Cell Phone Drunk

So via Slashdot comes a news story about a study done at the University of Utah that purports to show that a person on a cell phone drives like someone who is drunk. I don’t think this is actually the case. I think there are very common-sense grounds for questioning the study.

Caveat: I can’t seem to find the actual study online, just an abstract. So, I am working from a second hand assessment of the study. However, the abstract and the news stories seem to agree.

The study claims that talking on a cell phone, even with a hands-free unit, causes one to have the same problems driving as someone with a blood alcohol of 0.08%. Everybody’s first reaction to this observation is, “those darn cell phone drivers,” but our second reaction should be, “wait a minute.”

If cell phone use is so dangerous then where are all the dead people?

Cell phone use has expanded dramatically in the last 10 years, yet there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in traffic accidents, injuries or fatalities. 0.08% is the legal blood-alcohol limit in many states today. Alcohol is a contributing factor in 35%-45% of all accidents. A sharp rise in the number of drunk drivers would instantly cause a sharp rise in the number of accidents. If cell phone use mimics drunk driving then the accident statistics should rise just as if we suddenly had a massive influx of drunk drivers.

The statistics on accidents do not show anything like that. Accident rates have actually been dropping over the entire time that cell phone use has been soaring. Clearly the supposition that using a cell phone while driving is just as dangerous as driving drunk is not true.

Cell phone use may measurably impair drivers in the lab but for whatever reason that does not translate into more real world accidents. Using this study as the basis for laws would be foolish.

22 thoughts on “Driving Cell Phone Drunk”

  1. Agree it would be foolish to base laws on this study, but I think it’s still likely that widespread cellphone use while driving increases the accident rate. It’s clear from observation that a lot of people who drive while phoning don’t drive well. It’s also conceivable that an increase in accidents due to cellphone use is being masked by a decrease in accidents that have other causes, such as drinking.

    Personally, I’m not waiting for more data before I change my behavior. I am now more cautious than I used to be around road intersections and in other driving or pedestrian situations where impaired drivers would be a hazard.

  2. Well, given the context of my (and my family’s) driving, one more accident may not mean much. Still, one of those was from a kid on a phone who was turning cross traffic and didn’t look up until he heard the crash. And there have been plenty of “near misses.” When statistics indicate we’re safer, we feel willing to take other risks.

  3. There doesn’t seem to be enough information in this article to make an connections between cell phone usage and accidents. I don’t have a link but recall reading a report of a study (just like this is a report of a study) which, IIRC, put a camera the watched and recorded the behavior of drivers and correlated that to accident events. It found that the single biggest correlation was conversation and there was no difference between conversing with passengers or conversing on a cell phone. Active engagement in conversation divides our attention and drivers with divided attention seem more likely to get into accidents.

    The report about this study and, perhaps, the study itself attempt to compare the effects of talking on a cell phone, while driving, with the driving behavior/ability of people with 0.08 BAC and the elderly. But, if I read it correctly, the only thing they compare is reaction time for braking and speed recovery time after braking while simulating a 10-mile, 10 minute, drive on a freeway.

    As someone who does more than 20,000 miles/year driving on freeways and has for many years, I can tell you there is far more to avoiding accidents than how quickly one brakes and/or how quickly one recovers speed after braking. Take my word for it that road conditions, speed of traffic, personal driving habits (are you a bumper hugger or lagbacker, drive with the general flow of traffic or faster or slower, how far ahead do you observe traffic or how far can you see well, etc), time of day (is the sun rising or setting in your eyes or distracting you because it is positioned right where you can’t block it, etc.) and the behavior of the drivers around you, as well as your own “mood” at the moment (happy, pissed off, listening raptly to the radio or some music?) have equal (probably greater) impact upon one’s chances of being involved in a traffic accident while driving on a freeway than 17 or 18% difference in braking reaction times.

    All that said, I am convinced it is a darned good idea and conducive to one’s continuing survival, to avoid immersing oneself deeply in conversation while driving. My own opinion is that conversation via telephone is marginally more distracting than conversation with a passenger. There are differences, but I suspect they “wash”. For example we have to “listen harder” while on the phone but we have no temptation to take our eyes off the road to look at our conversation partner.

    Nothing in the report of the study makes any attempt to correlate driving while elderly or while talking on cellphones with actual involvment in accidents.

    Furthermore the report does not mention that driving regulations typically distinguish between DUI and DWI. I have no data but it seems very likely to me that the 0.08 level is DUI and that DWI is a higher BAC level and that DWI correlates with a higher accident rate than DUI does. None of that is discussed. I’ve never sought out any such data but I speculate that people who drive “drunk” (DWI) have much higher accident rates than those who have a low level DUI BAC.

    I’d actually like to see some evidence that the continued lowering of allowable BAC levels is based upon some accident data rather than a constant ratcheting toward “zero tolerance”. I’ll probably get clobbered for saying it, but count me with the people who that while having a glass of wine or a beer with dinner may make one an illegal driver (DUI) it doesn’t automagically make one a “drunk” driver or even a danger on the roads.

    Let’s have a look at what is reported:

    “If you put a 20-year-old driver behind the wheel with a cell phone, his reaction times are the same as a 70-year-old driver,” said David Strayer, a University of Utah psychology professor and principal author of the study. “It’s like instant aging.”

    And it doesn’t matter whether the phone is hand-held or handsfree, he said. Any activity requiring a driver to “actively be part of a conversation” likely will impair driving abilities, Strayer said.

    See my comments above re: conversation. Its the talking that’s dangerous, not the phone (which explains women… never mind, just funnin’). Also see further down in the article… we’ll come back to this point.

    In fact, motorists who talk on cell phones are more impaired than drunken drivers with blood-alcohol levels exceeding 0.08, Strayer and colleague Frank Drews, an assistant professor of psychology, found during research conducted in 2003.

    I’m no expert on “drunk” driving laws but I’d like to see some evidence that 0.08 is DWI level rather than DUI level – the “more impaired than drunken drivers” strikes me as a throw away statement that relates to the “legality” rather than data about accident rates.

    Strayer said they found that when 18- to-25-year-olds were placed in a driving simulator and talked on a cellular phone, they reacted to brake lights from a car in front of them as slowly as 65- to 74-year-olds who were not using a cell phone.

    In the simulator, each participant drove four 10-mile freeway trips lasting about 10 minutes each, talking on a cell phone with a research assistant during half the trip and driving without talking the other half. Only handsfree phones considered safer were used.

    The study found that drivers who talked on cell phones were 18 percent slower in braking and took 17 percent longer to regain the speed they lost when they braked.

    See my comments above about factors involved with one’s ability to drive safely on freeways. A safety-minded driver who is compelled to use a cellphone will either pull off the road (admittedly rare) or adjust his driving by, for example, slowing and allowing for greater following distance.

    The numbers, which come down to milliseconds, might not seem like much, but it could be the difference to stopping in time to avoid hitting a child in the street, Strayer said.

    This is a throwaway statement. Children rarely run onto freeways and people drive differently in residential areas where children are likely to run into streets. He tested for one thing and is commenting on another.

    The new research questions the effectiveness of cell phone usage laws in states such as New York and New Jersey, which only ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. It’s not so much the handling of a phone, Strayer said, but the fact that having a conversation is a mental process that can drain concentration.

    Cellphones don’t kill, yacketty-yacking people kill.

    The only silver lining to the new research is that elderly drivers using a cell phone aren’t any more of a hazard to themselves and others than young drivers. Previous research suggested older drivers may face what Strayer described as a “triple whammy.”

    They didn’t tell us enough to make any “only silver lining” type statements, but nonetheless the study seems to suggest that there’s more to safe driving than braking reaction times and return to speed after braking times. Experienced drivers normally learn to drive safely and leave themselves some margin for error. Defensive driving isn’t simply a matter of stomping the brake as quickly as possible.

  4. Where are all the dead indeed. Here in New Mexico we rank out of proportion to our population in DWI deaths. The problem as repeatedly and unendingly demonstrated with one DWI blitz after another, is that too many people are driving under the influence. Which raises the point that even more people should be dead but are not due to DWI, even though it is a major killer in the state. So many DWI drivers are tagged but literally overwhelm the system. Somewhere nearly a quarter to a third of citations go unworked because there are not enough hours in the week for police and officers of the court to do their jobs and cover DWI. Which all makes the cell phone issue mute, except of course for those we bury.

  5. So hands free cell phones are the same as 0.08 alcohol. What equivalence does a sober front seat passsenger equal? 0.08 also?
    How about having the driver’s mother-in-law as a front seat passenger? Perhaps 0.22? As a rear seat passenger? 0.3? How about having one small child in a carseat in the back seat? Happy = 0.10; screaming = 0.47? 2 small children fighting 0.52;
    with blood 1.24.

    Should cars and trucks have passenger seats?

    Should human beings be allowed to drive school busses?

    Are people with 0.08 alcohol really drunk or dangerous?

  6. w solvason raises good questions. Lots of things are distracting and probably can degrade driving performance. Perhaps the question should not be whether cellphone use is a good idea, but rather how best to reduce behaviors that significantly increase the risk of driving but have marginal benefits. Don’t drive with your mother-in-law, I guess. Can you avoid driving with kids? That seems unlikely, if you have kids. But you can avoid drinking and driving, and you can probably avoid phoning and driving. (Of course, there’s no reason not to carry a phone for use during emergencies or when you’re not driving.) And I suppose there are people who really need to stay in touch with the office or whatever. But there are many people whose cellular conversations are mainly discretionary, and I think that these people should consider staying off the phone when they’re at the wheel.

    Note that I don’t see much role for laws or govt here. The issue of anti-phoning laws for drivers raises the question that w solvason raised, namely, why restrict only phoning, when many other activities are distracting? I don’t think one-size-fits-all rules are wise in this case. Better to urge caution for certain activities (as we do now for drinking and driving) while allowing individuals to make their own decisions.

  7. I perhaps should have more strongly pointed out that actual studies of accidents do not show that cell phones contribute strongly to real accidents.

    I think this is one of those study that appeal to people’s prejudices, that get widely quoted and that become the basis for law yet it is immediately obvious you can’t extrapolate the findings in the lab to the real world.

    At any given time about 10% of drivers are talking on a cell phone. If they had the same effect as 10% of drivers being drunk the uptick in accidents would be immediate and enormous.

    That clearly isn’t the case, so we know immediately that for whatever reason, the laboratory results can’t be applied directly to the real world.

    I see a lot of such studies, or perhaps the use of such studies, in public relations and politics. We make laws based on such studies when we shouldn’t.

  8. I think more data are needed. I suspect that many people can successfully phone and drive, but that some people are unable to do so. I’ve seen drivers who appeared to be almost unaware of their surroundings while they used the phone. We’ve all seen them. They drive like people who are on drugs. How many people have we all seen running lights and stop signs while using the phone? I am sure that some of these people cause accidents that wouldn’t happen if they weren’t on the phone.

    There’s also a possible reporting problem here. How would you know that a driver who was involved in an accident was using a phone at the time? A lot of these people aren’t going to admit it, for obvious reasons.

  9. Hi Shannon,

    I agree that this study seems preliminary and it would be very interesting to analyze some population level data.

    However, I do disagree with the argument that since there has been a trend of continuing decreasing traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities during the time the past 10 years that cell phones pose no risk. Here’s some reasons why traffic fatalities have decreased so dramatically in the past 10 years: safer cars on the road, more cars that are equipped with airbags, the movement setting .08 as the legal limit, increasing seatbelt usage, and graduated drivers liscence schedules. It is totally possible that there is an excess of deaths from cell phone usage but that we can’t see it when we’re just looking at crude annual death rates.

    PS. I was able to download the article, if you’d like a copy, drop me a line and I can e-mail it to you.

  10. Chel,

    (1) When looking at auto safety it is important to separate the concept of accidents from injuries and fatalities. Some improvements lower accident rates but do not improve survivability when the accident does occur. Drunk driving prevention would fall in this category, so would autonomic brakes. Other improvements do nothing to prevent accidents but improve survivability. Airbags and seat-belts would fall in that category.

    When we look at whether driver distraction is dangerous we would want to look at only those factors that cause accidents and not those that save lives only after the accident occurs. That means we can ignore injuries and fatality statistics since they won’t tell us much about why the accident occurred in the first place.

    (2) If cell phone use was as impairing in the real world as the study suggest, the effect on the accident rate would be enormous. It would like the difference between stepping in a puddly two inches dead and stepping in one a foot deep.

    I imagine real world cell phone use doesn’t cause the problems suggested because unlike drunk driving, the cell phone user can switch the phone off if driving conditions worsen. Its like a drunk who can instantly sober up.

    I would appreciate a copy of the study. You can mail it via the link at the bottom of this post which shows my name.

  11. I don’t know that they actually have the proper statistics to prove one way or another about cell phones and accidents. I would hazard a guess that they would call it reckless driving and not indicate that it was caused by cellphone usage.

    I live in NYC and I can tell you that if I see a driver talking on a cell phone while I am crossing a street I get out of their way as fast as possible. As a pedestrian I see the way people talking on cell phones operate and it is not pretty. They are a real hazard to the other drivers. I can also tell you that they totally ignore the law against driving and using a hand held cell. You see them all the time with their head scrunched over holding the cell while they turn corners or hold the cell with one hand, steer and shift with the other. Even worse I have even seen them fumble in a bag while holding the cell with their chin and talking a mile a minute and driving at the same time. If you ever get to NYC take a ride down Queens Boulevard some time. It would be an eye-opener for you.

    As I say, if I see a driver using a cell phone I skedaddle out of their line of fire post haste.

  12. Hi Shannon,

    When I click on the link with your name I get the chicagoboyz url. I think if you enter both an e-mail address and a url into the comment thingy, the link will be to the url. So I just entered my e-mail address this time for this comment and then maybe you can e-mail me and I can send you the article.

    Yes, I agree that deaths/injuries are different than accidents. I sort of laziliy lumped it all into one list above since your original question was, “If cell phone use is so dangerous then where are all the dead people?” But just looking at accident trends, the movement to .08 has been huge. There’s also been the graduated liscense systems that have been becoming more popular accross the county. To be honest I’m not sure if they’ve had a measurable effect yet, (this isn’t my area) but they are supposed to.

    Personally I doubt that using a cell phone is the absolutely identical to driving drunk. Personally I think it’s not a great idea to talk on the phone and drive at the same time — I think it does impair people. I wish less people would do it. (I don’t know whether this is an area for legislation or public education, or both, or neither.) But here is what I can say for sure — I think that even in the prescense of laws and an educated public, most people will drive impaired at some points in time (whether it’s because they are drunk, talking on the cell phone, sleepy, stressed about a fight they had with their partner, managing fighting kids in the backseat, dealing with a sinus infection, or etc.) it is important to keep working for safer cars and safer roads.

  13. “Safer cars” for whom? A car that is safer for its occupants in an accident may be less safe for pedestrians and other motorists. This is because the added safety features, by decreasing the expected cost to the driver of his mistakes, effectively encourage bad driving.

    I think the most reasonable course of action is to increase public awareness of the risks of driving while distracted, tired or otherwise impaired. This is likely to be a long-term project and not something that can be fixed quickly by official pronouncements or laws.

  14. The obvious difference between a cell phone and being drunk is that in an elevated risk situation (heavy traffic, construction, residential area), you can ignore the phone/hang ug and focus on driving. Much like any other distraction. A drunk is always drunk.
    When I was young and stupid, I used to read while driving – but not 100% of the time. (Ironically enough, my habit of reading the newspaper at traffic lights during one of my commutes spared me getting speared by an idiot running a red light at 50 mph when I was slow reacting to a green light, unlike the guy to my right…)

  15. Jonathan G ewirtz,

    I to think that cell phones are somewhat distracting especially the mechanics of operating the phone when dialing or answering. We have a family rule that the driver cannot use a cell phone.

    But I think it is a big leap to say that cell phones are so dangerous as to require legislation. ( Not that you did.) The science does not support such action.

    Personally, I think cell phones have become a favored scapegoat because (1) they used to be status symbols and everybody likes to think rich people are jerks indifferent to the safety of others and (2) cell phones are visible. You can see the silhouette of a driver and tell if they have a phone against their ear. If the driver does something reckless, we chock it up to the cell phone and we remember it. If they do something reckless but we can’t see the cell phone, the cause is to vague and we forget it.

  16. Shannon, I wrote specifically that I do not favor legislating against cellphone use by drivers, but that I do favor promoting increased “public awareness of the risks of driving while distracted, tired or otherwise impaired.”

  17. When I see a woman driving a minivan (loaded with kids) making a left turn with her head tilted to the right talking on a cell phone held in her right hand, I get nervous.

    But, that’s just me.

  18. Pingback: The Last Blog
  19. DWI, drunk driving, dui, and a license to drink.
    Madd, sadd, radd, A.A., and Alanon related.

    Copyright: 1987-2005 © Bruce Alm. Documentation is available.

    The answer to the problem of drunk driving, etc. could be this; a permit for the purchase and consumption of alcohol beverages.

    This would not only be a major assault on the problem of drunk driving, but would also have an effect on virtually all other crimes such as these;
    murder, rape, assault, burglary, robbery, suicide, vandalism, wife beating, child beating, child molestation, the spread of aids, college binge drinking, animal cruelty, etc., the list is endless.

    If this proposition was made law, there could be a major reduction in all these areas of concern, even though the emphasis concerning alcohol abuse seems to be drunk driving in particular.

    There could also be many other positive results;

    families healed, better work performance, booze money spent on products that would help the economy, would spare many health problems, etc.

    This new law could go something like this:

    Any person found guilty of any crime where drinking was a factor would lose the right to purchase and/or consume alcohol beverages.

    For a first misdemeanor, a three year revocation. a second misdemeanor, a ten year revocation. a third misdemeanor, a lifetime revocation. Any felony crime, an automatic lifetime revocation.
    Anyone caught drinking alcohol without a permit would receive a possible $1000 fine and/or jail sentence. those who would supply alcohol to people without a drinking permit (and possibly make money at it,) would also lose his/her right to purchase alcohol beverages.

    What wife or husband would buy an alcoholic spouse a bottle?

    What friend would give a problem drinker a drink at the possible cost of a thousand bucks and the loss of their own privilege? This could be a total discouragement to these would-be pushers.

    This permit doesn’t seem as though it would be a problem to put into effect. It could simply be a large X, or whatever, on the back of any drivers license in any state, to show who has been revoked, and cannot purchase alcohol.

    Most people of drinking age have a driver’s license, but one area that might be a problem could be New York City, where many people don’t drive.

    This problem could be resolved, however, by a license-type I.D. specifically for the purchase of alcohol beverages. Most, if not all states have these already for the purpose of identification.
    This could be a small price to pay for the saved lives of thousands of Americans each and every year.

    After this, it would simply be a matter of drinking establishments checking I.D.s at the time of purchase.
    In the case of crowded bars, they could simply check I.D.s at the door, as they do now.

    Would this be a violation of rights?

    There can be no argument here since they already check I.D.s of people who look as though they may not be old enough to drink.

    This could be a good saying, “If a person who doesn’t know how to drive shouldn’t have a license to drive, a person who doesn’t know how to drink shouldn’t have a license to drink.”

    Here are some other pluses to this idea:

    A good percentage of people in correctional institutions are there because of alcohol related offences . Because of this, court, penal, and law enforcement costs could drop dramatically.

    The need for A.A., ALANON, MADD, SADD, etc., could be greatly diminished as well.

    What the alcoholic fears most, is the temptation to have that first drink, usually a spur of the moment type thing. Without the ability to do this, he/she is fairly safe. To start drinking again would almost have to be planned in advance. and to maintain steady drinking would be extremely difficult, in most cases.

    Even though A.A. members as a group don’t become involved in political movements, it seems as individuals, they would all be in favor of a situation like this. Any person who wants to quit drinking, even if never having been in trouble with the law, could simply turn in their license for the non-drinking type.

    A woman from MAAD, on the NBC TODAY show, said “One out of every ten Americans has a drinking problem, and that 10% consumes 60% of all alcohol beverages sold in the U.S..”
    If this is true, there could be financial problems for breweries, liquor stores, bars, rehab centers, etc., as well as lawyers, massive amounts of tax revenue ‘down the drain,’ and so on.
    But it doesn’t seem as though anyone would have a valid argument against a proposal such as this for financial reasons. To do so would be morally wrong, and could be likened to a drug-pusher attitude.

    Even with the problems this new law could present, it still could, in one sense, be considered the simple solution to the number one drug problem in the U.S. and elsewhere. Alcoholism.


    What ever happened to the skid row drunk?

  20. ya your right.driving drunk is way diffrent because when your drunk your stupied and when your talking on a cell phone your not stupied your just distracted.and you smell bad bahaha jk but you might :0

Comments are closed.