Posted on: Jun. 21, 2017 in Driving, Safety

The idea that using a cell phone while driving can be distracting is not a new one. Initially, the focus was on getting drivers to use a hands-free device in order to minimize those distractions. However, a recent study from the University of Iowa shows that just having a conversation alone – whether on a hands-free device or even with a passenger – can cause significant distraction.


Study participants were asked a series of true or false questions while computerized equipment tracked their eye movements as they looked at objects on a screen. Other participants were directed to look at these same objects but were not asked the questions. The result? Those who answered questions took twice as long to redirect their eyes when new objects popped up.

The delay amounted to about four-hundredths of a second. While this isn’t a huge amount of time, however, the longer the distraction, the longer the delay became. In essence, your attention is decreased, but it happens progressively while you’re distracted and the gradual build up is harder for a driver to detect.

The study was set up to measure attentional disengagement. What became clear is that regardless of whether a person is listening to someone on the other end of a cell phone or someone else in the car, the brain is still engaging in what’s known as “active listening.” Chatting may seem effortless to many of us, but it involves registering what another person is saying, considering it with the driver’s existent knowledge of the subject, then thinking about a reply. Again, the speed at which this happens in everyday life makes it seem simple, but it’s in fact a complicated brain process.

The research also showed that there was no remarkable difference in the attention delay whether the questions were easy or difficult. However, there was a shorter delay among participants who “passively listened” to the questions but didn’t have to answer.

The bottom line: You may think you’re not distracted when you’re talking and driving, but you are and you likely won’t even know it.

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