UI study: Hands-free phones, driving may not mix either

When Art Kramer sees someone driving and talking into a headset these days or, seemingly, chatting to themselves while tooling down the road, he gives them a wide berth.

Forget about drivers who make a menace of themselves obviously, by clutching cellphones to their ears. Hands-free phone use when driving may be just as bad, despite the plethora of proposed state regulations that would ban hand-held phones but permit hands-free use.

"The big deal is focusing on something other than the task at hand," not whether the phone being used for the conversation that's taking your focus off driving is actually in hand, said Kramer, a University of Illinois psychology professor.

Research by Kramer, Jason McCarley and colleagues indicates that young and old drivers alike are less likely, when engaged in a hands-free conversation, to detect changes on the road.

"The overall error rates went up," said McCarley, a psychology professor at the UI Institute of Aviation and the study's lead author.

Moreover, older drivers are slower to react when they do detect meaningful changes, such as a child running into the street.

In fact, older drivers pretty much lose the ability to discern between important and unimportant changes, a finding from the study that Kramer called scary.

That happens even when the conversation is casual – movies, vacation events and the like – not something complicated, for example discussing geopolitics or giving directions to one place on the phone while driving to another.

The effect doesn't happen if the driver is listening to a passenger talking on a phone, which Kramer likened to listening to the radio. That could be because the driver's brain doesn't have to be both listening and formulating a coherent response, he and McCarley said.

The difference the UI study found between younger and older drivers may be related to the general decline of our cognitive abilities, particularly speed and working memory, as we age, Kramer said.

Older people also have a tendency to focus more narrowly on their environment, McCarley said. One thing, like talking on the phone, may limit attention to another, driving.

Most states, including Illinois, have considered banning hand-held cellphone use by drivers in recent years, while permitting hands-free use, although few of the laws have passed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New York was the first state to approve such a law, and New Jersey and Washington, D.C., followed suit this year.

Illinois, along with a number of other states, prohibits cellphone use by school bus drivers, but not drivers in general. The state also requires headsets to be one-sided, leaving one ear open.

Matt Sundeen, a transportation expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said "distracted driving" has become a hot issue over the last five years or so.

"Much of the legislation's been focused on cellphones," said Sundeen, who has done an informational report on the issue aimed at legislators grappling with it. "The hands-free solution is one that a lot of states have looked at."

Meanwhile, he said the issue is expanding as more and more potentially distracting devices – from DVD players to satellite navigation displays – are beginning to be added to vehicles.

In addition to hand-held cellphone bans, several states have considered or approved additional fines for accidents caused by distracted driving, including cellphone use.

To do their study, the UI researchers took hundreds of digital photos along Chicago roadways and created a variety of types of scenes. Those were flashed on screen in a virtual reality booth at the UI in a manner that mimicked the way we see things when driving.

Two groups of drivers – from 20 to 30 and 60 to 75 years old – while holding a hands-free conversation with someone off stage, so to speak, had to detect changes in the projected scenery, push a button and then outline the change they saw. Their eye and head movements also were tracked.

The UI researchers conducted a second study in which the drivers listened to recordings of conversations from the first study, as if listening to a passenger talking on the phone.

The studies were funded by General Motors and the National Institute on Aging. David Irwin of the UI Psychology Department, graduate students Margaret Vais and Heather Pringle, now a U.S. Air Force Academy faculty member, and David Strayer, a University of Utah psychology professor, were the other researchers involved.

Kramer and colleagues are now conducting similar experiments in a driving simulator in the basement of the UI's Beckman Institute, which puts the test drivers at the wheel of an actual car surrounded by screens projecting virtual scenery.

Besides cellphone use, the researchers are considering the impact of such things as Global Positioning System units, collision warning systems and other gear that's on the way to becoming standard equipment in vehicles and is both potentially useful and distracting.

You can reach Greg Kline at (217) 351-5215 or via e-mail at kline@news-gazette.com.

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