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Hands-Free Cell Phones and Distracted Driving: New Study Indicates Listening Preoccupies Brain Enough to Contribute to Accidents

Posted By Regan Zambri & Long || 28-Mar-2008

Simply listening to a caller on a cell phone while driving may distract the brain enough to contribute to an accident.  The finding is the result of a new study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University and published in a recent edition of the journal Brain Research.

The research findings echo those of previous studies which have found that drivers who use cell phones are more likely to have an accident and that hands-free devices do little to reduce those odds.  In fact, the act of simply listening appears to divert much of the driver’s concentration — concentration that would normally go toward navigating the road.

In this latest study, 29 volunteers used a driving simulator while placed inside an MRI brain scanner. Participants navigated a road twice, once with no distractions and once while listening to various cell-phone communicated sentences and trying to decide whether they were true or false.  In that second scenario, typical drivers experienced a 37% drop in parietal lobe activity.  The parietal lobe is an area involved in spatial sense and navigation, which helps to account for why the shift in brain activity was accompanied by an increase in driving errors.  Distracted drivers were more likely to drift in their simulated lanes and to crash into virtual guardrails.

Researchers note that cell phone etiquette tends to emphasize non-distracted conversation, whereas a passenger in the vehicle carrying on a conversation with a driver is likely to be more attentive to times when the driver needs to focus more on the road, the instrument panel, or other parts of the automobile.  Music, they say, also demands less attention because  it doesn’t require the cognitive processing necessary for sustained conversation, and can be tuned out more easily when necessary.

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