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Last modified: Thursday, July 6, 2006

Talking on cell phones while driving is risky business

Hands-free just as dangerous

A small but growing body of research indicates that the mental distraction experienced when talking on a cell phone while driving (TWD) causes more problems than any physical hindrance from the phone. Hands-free cell phones, in fact, are involved in more accidents (14 percent) than handheld cell phones (4 percent), according to a study by an Indiana University researcher published in the Journal of American College Health.

Dong-Chul Seo, a lecturer in IU Bloomington's Department of Applied Health Science, studied the effect of TWD on young drivers, who because of their age represent a disproportionate number of drivers involved in fatal crashes. Seo analyzed questionnaire responses from 1,291 college students in four states. The use of cell phones by young drivers, he found, substantially increased the risk of accidents. Twenty-one percent of accidents or near-accidents reported by the students occurred when at least one of the drivers used a cell phone.

"Other age groups might be more cautious and more aware of the dangers of talking while driving, compared to younger drivers who really want to talk to their friends or seek emotional support," Seo said. He cautioned against a false belief that hands-free models increase safety over handheld models. "The study findings indicate that reduced physical distraction does not necessarily enhance driving safety. What matters is to minimize cognitively distractive barriers to safe driving," he said.

In 1990, only around 5 million people used cell phones, he said, compared to around 174 million people today. Research into the safety of cell phone use is in the early stages, he said.

Seo thinks TWD should be banned, regardless of whether the cell phones are hands-free or not. Several countries, such as Singapore and Japan, have done so while a larger number of countries have banned the use of handheld cell phones while driving. In the United States, the use of handheld cell phones while driving is banned in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. Seo said more than 30 other states are considering similar legislation. In his study, 74 percent of the students responded that TWD increased the risk of accidents, yet only 6 percent advocated banning the practice.

The Department of Applied Health Science is in IUB's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation.