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Cell Phones Make Young Drivers Act Like 70-Year-Olds

Dr. Michael Clayton, far right, and psychology students conducting behavioral research about drivers who use cell phones.

By Sherry Kughn
JSU News Bureau

15 February, 2005 — A University of Utah study of cell phone use had some surprising results: Twenty-year-olds who drive while talking on the cell phone perform the same as 70-year-old drivers.

The study also showed that elderly drivers have even slower reaction times when they drive and talk on a cell phone. For both groups, the results were the same whether drivers used hand-held or hands-free phones.

“I am surprised,” said JSU student Dzung “Le” Le from Vietnam when told about the slowed reaction times. “And I always thought a hands-free phone would be safer.”

Leslie Harris, a JSU senior from Oxford, is not surprised that cell phone use slows reaction time in drivers. “I never talk on mine and drive,” she said. “I just can’t. If someone calls me, I tell them I’ll call them back.”

The study, which was conducted by psychology professor David Strayer, appeared in the winter issue of Human Factors, a trade journal. It is one of many studies that has been recently done, said Dr. Michael Clayton, a professor in JSU’s Department of Psychology. He said cell phones have been around long enough to now have a measurable affect on behavior.

Dr. Clayton conducted his own study at JSU during 2004 after observing a co-worker make a dangerous turn in front of traffic every day with a cell phone in her hand. He cited another reason for his study: Someone he knew was killed in a wreck while talking on the cell phone.

“Eighty-five percent of cell phone carriers use them while driving,” he said. “Six percent of auto accidents are caused by cell phone use.”

During the JSU study, Dr. Clayton posted several psychology majors at the campus exit at Trustee Circle and Pelham Road. He instructed the students to show drivers a sign saying “Please hang up. I care.” If the drivers complied, they flipped the sign over. “Thank you,” it read. The goal was to see if a message affected future behavior. After several days in a row with signs being shown at the same time each day, students recorded a 20% decrease in the use of cell phones among the same drivers.

The results of the study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. In his article, Dr. Clayton will say that the skills required to talk on a cell phone and drive a car simultaneously place too much of a drain on concentration.

“We have only so much attention,” said Dr. Clayton. “It’s like a pie. Each task takes a slice. Talking on a cell phone takes a large slice and doesn’t leave enough for driving.”

One JSU student with an admitted reputation for excessive cell phone use is Kenn Catoe of Andalusia. He remembered seeing the JSU students with their signs.

“I ignored them,” said Catoe. “In fact, I was on the phone when I saw the students.”
Talking on a cell phone while driving worries Dr. Randal Wood, acting head of the Department of Criminal Justice. Sometimes he sees drivers add to the dangerous mix. He recently watched someone drive with a cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in another.

“How she was driving, I don’t know,” said Dr. Wood.

In his line of work, Dr. Wood knows what could happen if a driver is not careful. Those who juggle a cell phone in a car while doing other things, such as smoking, eating, or applying make-up, could be charged with manslaughter if they caused a wreck in which a death occurred. If the prosecutors can prove recklessness or that a driver had a mental state of recklessness, they could be charged with a Class B felony. “That would be punishable by not less than two nor more than 20 years,” he said. Even if the prosecution could only prove criminally negligent homicide, which is a class A misdemeanor, the driver could spend up to a year in jail.

“I’m surprised, and I didn’t know that,” said Mr. Catoe when told about the possibility of jail time. “But I never talk and do more than drive. I’m not a multi-tasker.”

When asked what it would take to discourage him from using the cell phone while driving, Mr. Catoe said he would quit if it were illegal. “With a busy schedule, though, the cell phone is convenient. Driving is a loss of time.”

Mr. Catoe lives in a fraternity house with a close-knit group of friends. He calls them often to plan their time together. He likes talking to girls, too, and family members. Sometimes, he said, when he is driving four hours away to Andalusia, he will talk on the cell phone almost the entire distance to help pass the time.

Dr. Clayton said he hopes education will lead drivers to curb their cell phone use behind the wheel. “I think it will take lots of penalties, though, like the seat belt law.”

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