27 March 2018

How dangerous is talking and driving at the same time?

According to a new review, it is important to know that drivers are distracted the moment they take their mind off the road.

Things seem to be looking up as the road death tollduring the 2017/2018 festive season has decreased to 1 527 – an 11% drop from the previous year. Despite this improvement, South Africa is still battling ahigh number of deaths on the country's roads.

Talking while driving – whether on a cellphone or simply conversing with a passenger – undermines road safety, a new review claims.

Drivers who talk, the researchers found, are less safe than drivers who stay quiet.

Different kinds of distractions

"It is a common misconception that tasks that allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road are distraction-free," said study co-author Sarah Simmons, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Calgary in Canada.

"[But] there is more to distraction than just visual attention. It is important to know that distraction occurs whenever drivers take their mind off the road," she said.

Simmons and her colleagues reviewed research on driving distractions that spanned a quarter century. Their findings were published in the journal Human Factors.

"Dialling a phone, which requires the driver to momentarily look away from the road, was detrimental to driving performance," Simmons said. "However, tasks that do not require the driver to look away from the road – such as talking on a hand-held or hands-free phone or to a passenger – also had negative effects on driving performance."

The researchers also noted that "conversation with passengers is generally socially accepted and nearly universally common." However, they concluded that when it comes to undermining driver attention, the "costs of conversation [with passengers] on driving performance are similar to those exerted by cellphone conversation".

Safety concerns

The researchers noted that a substantial number of people use cellphones while driving. They cited a 2015 study that found nearly 4% of American drivers, operating roughly 542 000 cars, had used a hand-held cellphone while driving during daylight.

Talking on your cell phone or texting while driving is a traffic violation in South Africa. There are however no figures available as to how many South African road users are guilty of this offence.

Another study from 2013 reported that nearly 62% of American drivers say they either make or take calls while on the road.

Doing so has costs. Cellphone use was a contributing cause in roughly 34 000 car crashes and more than 400 fatalities, according to 2013 data from the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

For the new review, the researchers analysed data from 93 studies, conducted from 1991 to 2015. They involved about 4 400 drivers, 14 to 84 years old.

The safety concerns analysed by the team included:

  • A driver's ability to react quickly to potential problems, including the ever-shifting proximity to other cars or pedestrians
  • The ability to quickly detect road signage
  • The ability to stay safely within a designated lane
  • The ability to maintain a safe speed and distance from other vehicles
  • The ability to take note of safety indicators adequately, such as the speedometer and mirrors
  • The ability to avoid a crash

The investigators concluded that "hand-held and hands-free phone conversation produces similar driving performance costs" by most safety measures. They noted, though, that having to actually handle a phone while driving probably creates a bigger distraction.

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