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Vol 56 No. 10 | Sept. 2004
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Driving While using cell phones
CSULB Study Finds Older Adults Have More Difficulty Driving While Using Cell Phones

By Shayne Schroeder

A Cal State Long Beach study on the use of cell phones while driving has shown, and not surprisingly, that the response time for all drivers is seriously slowed, but the slowing for older individuals is much more significant than for younger adults.

The study, overseen by psychology professor Joellen Hartley, was conducted by students engaging 18 older (65+ years old) and 18 younger (18-30 years old) subjects. Participants were not required to actually drive a car for this particular study. Instead, the experiment was conducted using computers and simulated scenarios. In two of the three scenarios, participants were involved in cell phone conversations and asked to respond to information on the computer screen directly before them. Their attention and decision-making processes were then evaluated by the speed and accuracy of their responses.

" We were looking at the differences between older and younger people and the effects of the intensity of a cell phone conversation on their performance of a driving task," said Hartley.

Identified keys on the computer keyboard were related to gas and brake pedals and, per prior instruction, participants responded in different ways to color and position of signals on the screen. More specifically, the evaluation was based on how long it took to press a key designated as the gas pedal, how long it took to lift their finger from the same key, and then how long it took them to press one of two other keys (brake pedals) when the signal changed color yet again.

" Really, two things were happening," said Hartley. "The subject's attention had to be engaged on the screen to detect changes in the display; and then they had to make a response decision based on what was on the screen. So we were looking at both attention and decision-making processes by measuring how long it took the person to respond to something that happened and how long it took them to press the correct key."

Prior to the actual experiment, participants were allowed to practice until they were comfortable with the process. The exercise involved participants talking on cell phones with student assistants. A hands-free device was used to rule out difficulties holding the phone while doing the task. One conversation was of low intensity, while the other was high intensity. The latter scenario theoretically required the use of more mental resources to manipulate and update information and come up with a response. The final test involved no cell phone conversation as participants just completed the task.

" What we found was that the old people are slower," said Hartley, who was not surprised by that finding alone. "They almost always are. But, as soon as cell phone conversations were introduced into the process the response time for both age groups was really lengthened, and more so for old adults than for young adults.

" Where the major effects were seen, for both age groups, was not so much in the time to make a complex response decision, but on the time needed to grab the subject's attention," said Hartley. "For the older participants, for example, in the high-intensity conversation, the amount of time needed to grab their attention (i.e., taking their finger off the gas pedal) was increased by almost 250 percent. For the younger participants, the increase was nearly 150 percent."
In addition to reacting more slowly under more intense scenarios, Hartley noted that the elderly participants were more prone to making errors.

" Where we see that decision processes are affected is when we look at the errors, the mistakes they make when they finally do respond," said Hartley. "The difference between the young and the old in decision accuracy in the absence of a cell phone conversation was not significant, but as soon as a cell phone conversation was introduced, the accuracy for the old people dropped. In young people accuracy did not decline until they were involved in high-intensity conversations, but even then only a little."

" So, in a nutshell, cell phone conversations divert attention from changes in a visual display and interfere with the accuracy of a decision. Young adults are not immune to these effects, but older adults are much less able to cope with the demands that a cell phone conversation makes on attention. The implications for driving safety are obvious."

Hartley noted that cell phone usage while driving causes what is called "attention blindness," a phrase coined by University of Utah researchers David Strayer and Frank Drews.

" In their studies they found a condition called 'attention blindness' and it's observed when you are talking on the cell phone, especially in high-intensity conversations," said Hartley. "You are just blind to things that would normally catch your attention.

" People don't notice things like street signs when they are talking on the telephone. In cell phone conversations, because the conversation attracts your attention, you close out other things."

Of course, the argument can be made that it's not just the cell phones which are the real culprits, but rather anything individuals do in their car that can be of equal distraction, for example, eating.

" But, people don't often eat in the car," explained Hartley, "They do, however, often use a cell phone. Or, some think having a conversation with a passenger is just as bad, but there have been studies done that looked at that and it isn't just as bad. They say talking on the cell phone is fundamentally different than having a conversation with someone sitting next to you."

Hartley cites that the conversation between a driver and passenger usually halts when the driver is making maneuvers because both can see the situation before them. Whereas, someone on the cell phone really doesn't have a clue of the situation a driver may be in.
" Cell phones engage you in conversation and you have to think about what is being said," noted Hartley. "You have to formulate a response, so your mental resources are engaged in this conversation. It's what we call multi-tasking or divided attention. It's having two things you need to pay attention to at the same time and not many people can do that. And, the harder one of the tasks gets, the less easily attention can be shared."

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