Study Finds Cell Phones Are a Major Driver Distraction

Many SMBs require "road warriors," employees who spend much of their time in the car. A new study finds talking on your cell phone while driving is more dangerous than talking to a passenger. With insurance rates on the rise, SMBs need to inform their employees about the danger of phoning and driving.

If your employees log a lot of road miles during the work day, there is something you need to let them know: drivers are much more likely to make a mistake or cause an accident when talking on a cell phone while driving.

The study, led by Frank Drews of the University of Utah, found the likeliness of making a mistake is higher than if the driver was talking to a passenger. With the cost of health insurance spiraling out of control, the last thing your business needs are employees involved in perfectly avoidable accidents. While the average small business owner may not realize it, trying to multitask on the drive to the office could result in an injury that slows the entire company down. Additionally, now that so many cell phones come equipped with the Web, e-mail and other applications, your road warriors have more distractions than ever.

For those of you who think using hands-free phones or speakerphone options make you safer, think again: The study found that even when drivers used a hands-free cell phone, driving performance was significantly compromised. "Cell phone and passenger conversation differ in their impact on a driver's performance; these differences are apparent at the operational, tactical, and strategic levels of performance," the researchers wrote.
In three experimental conditions-- conversation with hands-free cell phone, conversation in the car or no conversation-- 41 pairs of participants were randomly selected to be the "driver" and the conversation partner.
Drivers used a sophisticated simulator that presented a 24-mile multilane highway with on- and off-ramps, overpasses and two-lane traffic in each direction. Participants drove in an "irregular-flow" environment, which mimics real highway conditions. This context required "drivers" to pay attention to surrounding traffic.
In the cell-phone conversation condition, drivers' conversation partners were at another location. In the in-car conversation condition, partners sat next to their (simulated) drivers. In both cases, conversation partners were told to tell one another a previously undisclosed "close call" story about a time their lives were threatened. The drivers also received instructions to pull into a rest area about eight miles from the starting point.
Drivers talking by cell phone drove significantly worse than drivers talking to passengers. The cell-phone users were more likely to drift in their lane, kept a greater distance between their car and the car in front, and were four times more likely to miss pulling off the highway at the rest area. Passenger conversation, however, barely affected all three measures.
The report's authors said the problems could have stemmed from inattention "blindness," or insufficient processing of information from the driving environment. The study suggests cell phone users may also have found it more difficult to remember the need to stop at the rest area.
Despite how experienced you may think you are handling eating, drinking, shaving and talking on your mobile while driving, it only takes a poorly timed glance at some business charts to take your eyes-and your mind-off the road. To combat the likelihood of this type of accident, several states and large cities have legislation in preparation for the banning of cell phone use in cars. In 2005, Chicago banned the use of cell phone use in cars without a hands-free device.
Whether it is work-related or personal chatter that keeps your employees glued to their handsets while on the road, tell them their presence in the office is too valuable to be lost over a call that could have been made at a standstill. For your employees who travel, ask them to pull over when making calls on the road. It is a hard habit to break, but with the rest of the distractions on the road, one less keeps your employees that much safer.