Driving Distractions Take Their Toll
Cell Phones and Other Distractions Contribute to Accidents

By Ellen Kuwana
Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer
December 20, 2004

I think it's fair to say people in the US are obsessed with multi-tasking. Many job descriptions list multi-tasking as one of the requirements. Parents have to multi-task. So many activities fill our lives that multi-tasking seems like a matter of survival. What does brain research tell us about multi-tasking?

Scientists can view the working brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Studies have shown that while multi-tasking, a person's brain does not function as well as if the person were doing the tasks separately. It actually takes us longer to complete tasks when we multi-task; any gain in efficiency is just an illusion.

Yet we multi-task all day, especially when driving. We drive, talk on cell phones, listen to music, attend to kids in the back seat, apply make-up, eat food, drink coffee and plan our days -- all at the same time! We forget that driving itself is a multi-tasking job that involves high-level thinking: hand-eye coordination (steering), decision-making (lane changing), visual information analysis (where are the lane lines), spatial processing (how far away is the curb?) and judgment about relative speeds of nearby vehicles (can I change lanes safely?). Driving is also something we do regularly, without much conscious thought. All this activity inside a vehicle weighing two tons and zipping along at 25-65 miles per hour.

One of out four accidents caused by "inattentive" driver

Drivers who are doing other tasks are more likely to have an accident. Inattentive drivers contribute to at least 25% of accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This equates to 1.2 million accidents each year caused by distracted drivers. The American Automobile Association (AAA) estimates that 1.5% of distracted driver accidents were attributable to cell phone use (compared to 10.8% caused by other occupants causing a distraction; 11.4% to adjusting the music). A driver who inserts a music CD increases the likelihood of an accident by six times as compared to glancing at the fuel gauge. So if cell phone use causes fewer accidents than fiddling with the radio, why are cell phones getting much of the blame? For one thing, it's a distraction that is easier for other drivers to spot. It's easy to blame another driver if he or she is on a cell phone. And cell phone use is becoming more and more common; it's a visible distraction.

Surveys indicate that half of all drivers use their cell phones while driving. A 1997 study in Toronto, Canada, found that using a cell phone while driving increased the risk of a collision by four times during the "brief period of a call." And these drivers are not just a threat to themselves -- they are a threat to everyone's safety. Two states (New York and New Jersey in 2001) and Washington, DC (in 2004) so far have banned cell phone use for drivers.

What mistakes are made by drivers using cell phones? A 2002 study conducted by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center found that cell phone users were twice as likely to be involved in a rear-end collision (45.1% vs. 25.6%). The most common causes of the accidents were:

  1. failure to reduce speed (33.5%)
  2. traffic signal violation (9.6%)
  3. speeding (4.9%)
  4. following too closely (3.5%)
  5. failure to yield (3.5%)

Why Teens Should Care
  • Car crashes are the #1 cause of death for 16- to 19-year-olds.
  • One out of five teens has a car crash during the first year of driving.
The cell phone industry has added features such as hands-free adapters for cell phones to improve their safety for use by drivers. There are no data to show that hands-free use is safer. With or without the hands-free device, cell phone use decreases reaction time. It's the conversation that is distracting, not the phone itself. Studies have shown that the emotional content of phone calls influences how a driver drives: while talking, the driver scans the road and used the rear-view mirror less frequently. This results in narrowing of the driver's field of vision, even though eyesight is not directly affected by a phone call.

The bottom line is that there is no way to make cell phone use 100% safe for drivers; the very action of talking diverts attention from the road. So keep your eyes and mind on the road and devote 100% of your attention to driving.

Did You Know?

  1. Distracted drivers cause 4,000 - 8,000 accidents each day in the US (Source: AAA).
  2. Driving is the most dangerous thing workers do on the job (Source: US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
  3. At any moment, 500,000 drivers in the US are talking on cell phones (Source: NHTSA).
  4. The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis found in 2003 that cell phone use by drivers caused 2,600 deaths and "moderate to critical" injuries for 330,000 people.
  5. From December 2001 through May 2004, New York issued more than 286,000 of the $100 citations for driving with a hand-held cell phone (Source: Calls are growing for cell phone laws in cars.").
  6. Cell phones have been around for 20 years; there are more than 151 million subscribers in the US (Source: Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Assoc.).
  7. The average person in the US spends more than 300 hours in the car each year (Source: Cell Phones and Highway Safety: State Legislative Update, 2003).

References and further information:

  1. Cell Phones and Traffic Safety from the AAA.
  2. Driver Distraction - from Monash University Accident Research Centre
  3. Calls are growing for cell phone laws in cars," by Kristin Dizon, The Seattle Times, November 17, 2004.
  4. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  5. "Driving? Maybe You Shouldn't Be Reading This," by Robin Marantz Henig, The New York Times, July 13, 2004.
  6. Learn about what happens in the brain of a backseat driver, Neuroscience for Kids, June 17, 2004.
  7. Drinking and Driving Affects Kids, Too! Neuroscience for Kids, February 24, 2004.

GO TO: Neuroscience In The News Explore the Nervous System Table of Contents

Send E-mail

Fill out survey

Get Newsletter

Search Pages