Why it Matters

Car Talk's
Produced in partnership with the University of Utah and University of Kansas

Driver Distraction: The Science and Why It Matters

By David Strayer
University of Utah Applied Cognition Laboratory


Driver distraction is the cause of at least one out of every three accidents and fatalities on the roadway. That translates into thousands of deaths and injuries every year. Each is entirely preventable. Over the years, I've met several families who have lost a loved one due to distracted driving. They make a convincing argument that no cell phone conversation is worth the life of their child, spouse, parent, or friend. Can anyone really argue otherwise? These stories are heart-wrenching and it is one of the reasons that I have been doing research on driver distraction for the last decade.

To be sure, distracted driving has been around since there have been cars on the road. The possible distractions are too long to list here. Some of the "old standards" include eating, drinking, lighting a cigarette, shaving, applying make-up, changing clothes, reading a book or newspaper and so on. In part, distraction is a fundamental characteristic of how the human brain works. Research has shown that we have a limited ability to multi-task (and, interestingly, people who do more multi-tasking tend to be the worst at it). So when drivers multi-task, they are taking attention from the roadway - which has disastrous consequences.

Today there are many more things that can distract the driver. Drivers can listen to the radio, shuffle their iPod, talk on their cell phone, text, tweet, send e-mail, Google something, and even watch a movie (alarmingly, some drivers even watch a favorite episode on TV while driving). Some people even consider their car to be their mobile office in an attempt to be more productive. Our research suggests that many of these newer sources of distraction are worse than the "old standards" because they a) tend to be more mentally engaging, b) are often performed for longer periods of time, and c) are engaged in by large segments of the population.

Why it Matters

Driver distraction kills and injures people every day. And, the problem is getting worse as we become more and more addicted to technology. There is no phone conversation that is worth someone's life. Our studies tell us that just about everyone is a poorer driver when they talk or text while driving. You might think that you are the exception, but the odds are very much against you.

Here is something to think about. Most people would never drive if they were drunk. But these same people think nothing of getting behind the wheel while talking on the phone. The irony is that the crash risk for driving drunk (at a .08 blood alcohol level) is the same as the crash risk for driving while talking on a cell phone.

The Science of Driver Distraction

Over the last decade, my lab has been studying driver distraction to better understand how and why people can become overloaded while multi-tasking. We use sophisticated equipment, including driving simulators, eye trackers, and we also measure brain activity (electroencephalography) and use neuroimaging technology (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to understand the cognitive neuroscience of driver distraction. The scientific analysis is clear — the brain becomes overloaded when people try to talk (or text) on the phone while driving.

David Strayer
Applied Cognition Lab
University of Utah

P.S. To learn more about the science, visit the Applied Cognition Lab at the University of Utah.

We've Found the Jerk that's Causing Accidents, and It's Us!

By Tom and Ray Magliozzi
Car Talk


We mean you, too. You don't drive drunk. So why do you talk on the phone while driving?

Distracted Driving Is Dangerous

Talking on the phone — even hands free — has been proven to be as dangerous as driving with a blood alcohol level of .08; that's legally drunk in every state except if you're an office holder.

Texting while driving is twice as dangerous.

You know these are both true statements. How? Because a few weeks ago while you were ordering General Tso's Chicken, you nearly drifted into a dump truck passing you in the next lane. Do you have a vague memory of some bruiser leaning on his 130-decibel horn and giving you the finger while you were still deciding between white and brown rice?

Then there was the time you tried to respond to a text message from your wife, and looked up just in time to slam on the brakes and avoid crashing into the back of Jimmy the Knuckle Scraper's new Town Car. Remember that heart pounding sensation?

So, let's stop BS-ing each other about how most people can't do it, but you can. Distractions cause accidents. We all KNOW they do from our own close calls. So why do we do it anyway?

You're Not Missing Anything

Afraid you're missing something? You're driving along, the phone rings. Who is it? Oh, I wonder if it's Gisele Bundchen calling to tell me she's leaving Tom Brady and she wants to go out with me. Tonight.

Trust us, that's not it. It's your wife, calling to tell you that you got a fat envelope in the mail from the IRS. Or that someone left a message on the answering machine saying she tested positive for something with initials in it.

Whatever it is, it can wait. And it should wait. Really. Or, you can create a special signal from your spouse or kids (like call twice in a row) if it's an emergency. Then you can find a safe place to pull over, and return the call.

Set an Example

Here's how:

1. Turn off your phone when you're in your car. When you get where you're going, check for messages. You'll be pleasantly surprised to see how many calls you're glad that you missed.

2. Add a line to your outgoing message that says, "I'm either away from my phone, or I'm driving. Leave a message, and I'll call you back." This also gives you a wonderful new excuse for not taking certain people's calls. "Sorry, Fred, I would have loved to hear about your baseball card collection again, but I was driving."

3. Stop accepting calls from friends and family when they're driving. This is a great way to pass the word. If you ask a caller, "Are you driving?" and the answer is yes, you say, "I'm sorry, I can't talk to you now. I'm hanging up. Call me back when you're not behind the wheel. I'd never forgive myself if you crashed and killed yourself because you were on the phone with me."

4. Take a few minutes and get informed. You already know talking on the phone makes you a lousier driver. Want the scientific evidence?

Think you can't restrain yourself? We understand. We've all been conditioned our entire lives to answer a ringing phone. Our advice? Put the phone out of reach — in your car's trunk, if you must. Right next to your mother-in-law.

Tom and Ray Magliozzi
Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers