The cellphone-traffic jam connection

A lot of newsies, including me on the Current yesterday, pointed out a study from the University of Utah which claimed that people drive slower while talking on the cellphone.

Anecdotal evidence alone suggests that’s true.

Where the study runs afoul is a sweeping — possibly premature — conclusion:

The talking drivers took 15 to 19 seconds longer to traverse a 9.2-mile segment of Salt Lake County-simulated freeway, according to the study. That sounds minimal, but the cumulative effects on all drivers are magnified because numerous drivers in real-world conditions likely would be on the phone slowing down others, said Joel Cooper, a doctoral student in psychology.

The press release from the lead author is especially strident:

“At the end of the day, the average person’s commute is longer because of that person who is on the cell phone right in front of them,” says University of Utah psychology Professor Dave Strayer, leader of the research team. “That SOB on the cell phone is slowing you down and making you late.”

SOB? Yikes. This, by the way, is the same person who put out a study that purported to show that a driver on a cellphone operates a car as efficiently as someone blowing .08 — a drunk driver.

The survey assumes that the proper commute is the one that goes as fast as possible, regardless of all other factors, including safety.

For example, substitute the phrase “driving no faster than the speed limit” for “talking on a cellphone” in the study and you’ll see the flawed science involved.

In stop-and-go traffic, because the cellphone driver (probably the most reviled class now that smokers have been banished) is “slower to resume freeway speeds,” there also is usually a wider gap between their vehicle and the vehicle ahead of them; some would say a safer distance than the bumper-riding, non-talkers, although an earlier study suggested they’re slower to brake.

It also showed that drivers talking on a cellphone are less likely to change lanes, which apparently is considered a bad thing.

Theoretically, acccording to this methodology, the person who zips past you and maintains speed all the way to the stop light ahead, is getting home quicker than you are, even though you and your steady speed end up at the same stoplight … eventually.

And the research is based only on the results turned in by 36 University of Utah students in a driving simulator. That would be an age group that is already predisposed to being poor drivers. Scientifically, it hasn’t been proven that the 36 represent the average driver. So, again scientifically, what can actually be claimed is “36 University of Utah students in a driving simulator drove slower when talking on a cellphone.” I have to admit that that’s not as much fun to read on the radio.

Assignment: On the way home today, check out the people on cellphones. Are they at the front of the jam? How many car lengths behind the people in front? And report Do not type while driving, however.

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