Just How 'Blind' Are You When Talking on a Cell Phone?
Everyday in the news we see stories decrying the use of cell phones while driving. Research reports aplenty have been released estimating the percentage of one's attention siphoned by mobile jabber and how little is left to focus on the highway.
This is great and I'm glad the discussion is happening, but it might be useful to ask whether cell phone use in other (non-driving) venues has a similar effect on attention. What better way to make the point that cell phone use is dangerous when driving than showing its effect on someone doing something not nearly as focus intensive — like walking, for instance.
That's exactly what the authors of a new study published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology wanted to do. Researchers examined the effects of divided attention when people are either (1) walking while talking on a cell phone, (2) walking and listening to an MP3 player, (3) walking without any electronics, or (4) walking in a pair.
The measure of how much attention is diverted during any of these activities is called "inattentional blindness" – not 'seeing' what's right in front of you, or around you, due to a distracting influence. If you've ever watched the YouTube video of the gorilla walking through the crowd of people passing around a ball, then you've seen an example of inattentional blindness (here's a great paper on the effect downloadable as a PDF).
For the first experiment of the study, trained observers were positioned at corners of a large, well-traveled square of a university campus. Data was collected on 317 individuals, ages 18 and older, with a roughly equal breakdown between men and women. The breakdown between the four conditions (with MP3, with cell phone, etc) was also roughly equal. Observers measured several outcomes for each individual, including the time it took to cross the square; if the individual stopped while crossing; the number of direction changes the individual made; how much they weaved, tripped or stumbled; and if someone was involved in a collision or near-collision with another walker.
The results: for people talking on cell phones, every measure with the exception of two (length of time and stopping) was significantly higher than the other conditions. Cell phones users changed direction seven times as much as someone without a cell phone (29.8% vs 4.7%), three times as much as someone with an MP3 player (vs 11%), and weaved around others significantly more than the other conditions (though, interestingly, the MP3 users weaved the least of all conditions).
People on phones also acknowledged others only 2.1% of the time (vs 11.6% for someone not on a phone), and collided or nearly collided with others 4.3% of the time (vs 0% for walking alone or in a pair, and 1.9% when using an MP3 player).
The slowest people, who also stopped the most, were walking in pairs. In fact, next to the other conditions walking in pairs was the only one that came anywhere close to using a cell phone across the range of measures.
The next experiment replicated the first, but only one measure was tracked: whether or not walkers saw a clown unicycling across the square. And this was an obnoxiously costumed clown, complete with huge red shoes, gigantic red nose and a bright purple and yellow outfit. Interviewers approached people who had just walked through the square and asked them two questions: (1) did you just see anything unusual?, and (2) did you see the clown?
The results: When asked if they saw anything unusual, 8.3% of cell phone users said yes, compared to between 32 and 57% of those walking without electronic devices, with an MP3 player, or in pairs. When asked if they saw the clown, 25% of cell phone users said yes compared to 51%, 60% and 71.4% of the other conditions, respectively. In effect, 75% of the cell phone users experienced inattentional blindness. (The discrepancy between the 8.3% and the 25% might be because the clown didn't register as something "unusual" — this is, after all, a university campus.)
So, coming back around to the original point — if using a cell phone impairs attention as drastically as this study shows for people just walking, could it by any stretch of the imagination be a good idea to use one while driving?
One caveat to that concluding question should be mentioned: As noted in the results, people walking in pairs–most likely talking to each other–were next in line for inattentional blindness. This jibes with research (discussed in this TIME article) indicating that talking to someone in your car while driving is significantly distracting–perhaps not quite as much as chatting on a cell phone, but in the neighborhood. Auditory cues, whether from a phone or from the person next to you, divert attention. The problem with cell phones, however, is that a user lacks the other set of eyes his co-chatter has to offer, which could very well be the difference between being in an accident or getting home safely.
Hyman, I., Boss, S., Wise, B., McKenzie, K., & Caggiano, J. (2009). Did you see the unicycling clown? Inattentional blindness while walking and talking on a cell phone Applied Cognitive PsychologyDOI: 10.1002/acp.1638
Researchers at Western Washington University investigated the effects of divided attention during walking.
Individuals were classified based on whether they were walking while talking on a cell phone, listening to an MP3 player, walking without any electronics or walking in a pair.
In the first study, the researchers found that cell phone users walked more slowly, changed directions more frequently, and were less likely to acknowledge other people than individuals in the other conditions.
In the second study, they found that cell phone users were less likely to notice an unusual activity along their walking route (a unicycling clown).
The study suggests that cell phone usage may cause inattentional blindness even during a simple activity that should require few cognitive resources. - ANI
Increased Fatalities From Cellphones Whether Talking While Walking or While Driving
Article Date: 05 Mar 2009 - 4:00 PDT
Cell phones are a danger on the road in more ways than one. Two new studies show that talking on the phone while traveling, whether you're driving or on foot, is increasing both pedestrian deaths and those of drivers and passengers, and recommend crackdowns on cell use by both pedestrians and drivers.
The new studies, lead-authored by Rutgers University, Newark, Economics Professor Peter D. Loeb, relate the impact of cell phones on accident fatalities to the number of cell phones in use, showing that the current increase in deaths attributed to cell phone use follows a period when cell phones actually helped to reduce pedestrian and traffic fatalities. However, this reduction in fatalities disappeared once the numbers of phones in use reached a "critical mass" of 100 million, the study found.
These studies looked at cell phone use and motor vehicle accidents from 1975 through 2002, and factored in a number of variables, including vehicle speed, alcohol consumption, seat belt use, and miles driven. The studies found the cell phone-fatality correlation to be true even when weighing in factors such as speed, alcohol consumption, and seat belt use.
Loeb and his co-author determined that, at the current time, cell phone use has a "significant adverse effect on pedestrian safety" and that "cell phones and their usage above a critical threshold adds to motor vehicle fatalities." In the late 1980s and part of the 1990s, before the numbers of phones exploded, cell phone use actually had a "life-saving effect" in pedestrian and traffic accidents, Loeb notes. "Cell-phone users' were able to quickly call for medical assistance when involved in an accident. This quick medical response actually reduced the number of traffic deaths for a time," Loeb hypothesizes.
However, this was not the case when cells were first used in the mid-1980s, when they caused a "life-taking effect" among pedestrians, drivers and passengers in vehicles. In those early days, when there were fewer than a million phones, fatalities increased, says Loeb, because drivers and pedestrians probably were still adjusting to the novelty of using them, and there weren't enough cell phones in use to make a difference in summoning help following an accident, he explains.
The "life-saving effect" occurred as the volume of phones grew into the early 1990s, and increasing numbers of cells were used to call 911 following accidents, leading to a drop in fatalities, explains Loeb. But this life-saving effect was canceled out once the numbers of phones reached a "critical mass" of about 100 million and the "life-taking effect" - increased accidents and fatalities -- outweighed the benefits of quick access to 911 services, according to Loeb.
"The cell phone effect on pedestrian fatalities" (Transportation Research Part E, Elsevier, Vol. 45, Issue 1, January 2009, with William A. Clarke, Bentley University, Waltham, MA,) looked at pedestrian fatalities related to cell phone use; the still-to-be-released "The impact of cell phones and BAC Laws on Motor Vehicle Fatality Rates" (Applied Economics, Loeb, Clarke and Richard Anderson, New Jersey City University), examines all cell-related traffic fatalities. Loeb and his co-authors used econometric models to analyze data from a number of government and private studies, including those by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Department of Transportation, MADD, and the U.S. Census Bureau, among others.
He and his co-authors recommend that governments consider more aggressive policies to reduce cell phone use by both drivers and pedestrians, to reduce the number of fatalities.
Source: Carla Capizzi
Walking while talking on a cell phone can be dangerous