Comparing the Cell Phone Driver and Drunk Driver
In the last decade the number of U.S. cell phone subscribers has nearly quadrupled, and their use while driving is common. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined that at any time during the day, 11% of drivers were likely to be using cell phones. And the consequences are not trivial: In 2011, texting and cell phone usage contributed to 3,300 traffic deaths, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
To assess the risks of using a cell phone while driving, a 2004 American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Institution Joint Center study, “A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver,” is a useful starting point. Rather than attempting to gather and untangle real-world accident data, the authors used a high-fidelity driving simulator to test the comparative effect of cell-phone use and alcohol consumption on drivers’ performance. The study’s authors determined that:
- Drivers conversing on cell phones had slower braking reactions and were involved in more traffic accidents than when they were not conversing on the cell phone.
- Subjects who were legally intoxicated drove more aggressively, following closer to the vehicle immediately in front of them and braking with more force.
- When controlling for driving conditions and other factors, cell-phone drivers exhibited greater impairment than intoxicated drivers.
- Hands-free cell-phone systems had no benefit compared to hand-held phones.
- Cell phone conversations have a more profound effect on driver performance than other forms of in-car distraction, including talking to passengers.
In concluding, the authors write: “There are clear societal norms associated with intoxicated driving and laws in the United States expressly prohibit driving with a blood alcohol level at or above .08%.” Given that drivers using cell phones show a similar or greater impairment, “logical consistency” suggests that effective, science-based regulation is appropriate.
A related 2008 study, “Passenger and Cell Phone Conversations in Simulated Driving,” examined how talking with car passengers while driving differed from using a cell phone. “The results show that the number of driving errors was highest in the cell phone condition,” the researchers found. “In passenger conversations more references were made to traffic, and the production rate of the driver and the complexity of speech of both interlocutors dropped in response to an increase in the demand of the traffic … mitigating the potential negative effects of a conversation on driving.”
Tags: technology, safety, cars, mobile tech, distracted driving, telecommunications
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the AEI-Brookings Joint Center study titled "A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver."
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the study-related New York Times article titled "Drivers and Legislators Dismiss Cellphone Risks."
- Reporter's use of the study: Evaluate what the reporter chose to include and exclude from the study. Would the audience have acquired a clear understanding of the study's findings and limits from this article?
- Reporter's use of other material: Assess the material in the article that is not derived from the study. (for example: Does the reporter place the study in the context of other research and to what effect? Does the reporter include reactions to the study from other researchers or interested parties [e.g., political groups business leaders, or community members] and are their credentials or possible biases made clear?)
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.