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Are there any studies that demonstrate that talking on a cell phone is more dangerous than any other type of distraction? Yes, it seems clear that talking on a cell phone is a distraction, but for the number of laws passed, I would expect that it be demonstrated that it is more of a distraction (to deserve being singled out legally).

Other common distractions

  • Radio
  • Talking to passengers
  • Intoxication
  • Fatigue
  • Eating/Drinking
  • Reading (no, I'm not kidding, people do it)
  • Applying makeup (also common)
  • Please add intoxication (IIRC cell phone risk is similar to drunk driving risk) and tiredness. – Sklivvz Mar 7 '11 at 21:54
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    I’m pretty sure that reading while driving is also forbidden, no? Same probably goes for applying makeup. The first two are good points, I’ve always wondered about them. – Konrad Rudolph Mar 7 '11 at 22:01
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    I think the key to this is that you never see someone doing any of the above while making a left turn into a crowded crosswalk. I think it goes to the fundamental ethical question of "Who are we when we are on the phone?" Even landlines change us. I can say "Honey, can you come here a minute" when my wife has guests, but it becomes an intolerable interruption when she's on the phone. – Chris Cudmore Mar 24 '11 at 0:33
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    The Virginia Tech 100-Car study based on real-life driving videos found that talking on the phone increases the risk of a crash only 1.3 times compared to non-distracted driving. The real danger is in dialing the phone or texting, when your eyes are off the road. This is not a complete comparison (so I include it as a comment and not an answer), but they do say "talking and listening to a cell phone is not nearly as risky as driving while drunk at the legal limit of alcohol". – Jan Fabry May 4 '11 at 7:17
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    The claim here seems a bit confused. The list includes specifically illegal items (intoxication), generally illegal items (make-up), probably-would-be-illegal-if-we-could-cheaply-and-reliably-measure-it (fatigue), and legal items (radio). What lawmaker is saying the cell-phone use is worse than drunkeness or make-up application? – Oddthinking May 25 '12 at 2:18
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Distraction of talking on a cell phone compared to:

  • Talking to other passengers
    As for how talking on a cell phone relates to talking to other passengers, there's actually some research showing that the former is a greater distraction. See Passenger and cell-phone conversations in simulated driving (PDF!)

    From the results:

    drivers in the cell-phone condition were four times more likely to fail in finishing the task [successfully exiting at the correct highway exit] than drivers in the passenger condition

  • Listening to radio
    From a general study on how language tasks interferes with visual tasks, a comparison is made between listening and talking, which seems relevant, as cell phone use employs both, while listening to the radio only requires the former:

    "We measured their attention level and found that subjects were four times more distracted while preparing to speak or speaking than when they were listening," said Almor of the 47 people who participated in the experiment. "People can tune in or out as needed when listening." * Experimental Psychology via Newswise

  • Intoxication
    I haven't looked for any research in this area. I don't know of a country where driving intoxicated is legal. Comparing the exact blood concentration required to equate with the distraction of cell phone use would probably be a rather laborious endeavour.

  • Eating/Drinking, Reading, Applying makeup
    These are all already illegal under the broader headline of reckless driving.

  • Fatigue
    This is a tricky one, as it's quite hard to quantify. There would be several practical problems with enforcing a law here. Partially because it is hard to objectively measure how tired someone is, but from another point of view, it is easy to relay the responsibility of not reading, talking on a cell phone, being intoxicated, etc, to the driver. These are all distractions that the driver can easily avoid. It would be problematic, in comparison, to demand that all drivers avoid becoming tired.

    Having said that, if that was the only problem with fatigue, we would probably have considered it a minor one, and worked around it. There is policy regarding this to some extent, already: there are laws controlling how long a professional driver (such as a truck or cab driver) is allowed to work without rest, and (at least in Sweden) if you do fall asleep while driving, it will be considered in court that you've been driving recklessly. I'm guessing the practical issues with implementation are what's differentiating this item from driving under the influence, which is prohibited regardless of whether or not you actually cause an accident.

  • +1, thanks a lot. This is a good summary and has some good study information that I had not found before. – Russell Steen Mar 8 '11 at 17:49
  • I don't understand why eating and drinking are harmful. If ones eat snacks or a sandwich cut in bite pieces and drinks water from a small bottle how it can be harmful? – Boris Pavlović Mar 9 '11 at 8:12
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    @Boris: that's what's cool with the reckless driving law: it's completely subjective. if you can eat while keeping control over your vehicle, that's fine, but if you've got your wheel tucked between your knees because you need both hands to wield that big burger, they can fine you for it. It's a flexible law like that. Naturally, I can't comment on how it's implemented in every single country; you might not be allowed to eat so much as an apple, I wouldn't know. – David Hedlund Mar 9 '11 at 8:17
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    I think Mythbusters did an episode comparing cell phones to drunk driving. I will try to find it. – TheEnigmaMachine Jul 11 '11 at 21:58
  • @AgentKC: slightly intoxicated driving actually, they were still below the legal BAC limit. – vartec May 25 '12 at 15:19

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