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Bentley College Study: Proper Training May Mitigate Negative Effects of Cell Phone Use While Driving

July 12, 2005

Despite a recent spate of studies pointing to the potential dangers of cell phone use while driving --along with an increasing number of calls to ban the practice-- an all-out prohibition may not be necessary, according to findings in a new Bentley College study indicating that proper training can mitigate the negative impact of cell phone use on driving performance.

The study, Cellular Telephones and Driving Performance: The Effects of Attentional Demands on Motor Vehicle Crash Risk, is based on an experiment in which drivers with and without communication training completed a simulated city driving course while involved in one of three conversation modes: no conversation, conversation with a seated passenger, and conversation on a hands-free cellular telephone.

The independent study -- with no funding from the cell phone or insurance industries -- was co-authored by Bentley Professor James E. Hunton and Professor Jacob M. Rose of New Zealand's Lincoln University, both accountancy professors and trained in psychological experimentation. Hunton is also a commercially licensed pilot and former flight instructor who trained students to handle physical and virtual communications. As an instructor, he began to wonder why pilots were able to multitask in the cockpit while drivers seemed unable to do so behind the wheel.

 

So the two researchers chose pilots as the perfect 'trained' study participantssince they safely fly airplanes while 'physically' talking to crew members and 'virtually' conversing over the radio with air traffic controllers -- behavior the authors believe is similar to talking with a passenger and on a cell phone while driving. A total of 56 pilots and 55 non-pilots participated in the study.

 

The findings include:

  • When not involved in a conversation, the driving performance of pilot-drivers and non-pilot-drivers was equivalent.
  • When conversing with a seated passenger, the performance of pilot-drivers was superior to non-pilot-drivers.
  • When talking on a cell phone, the performance of pilot-drivers deteriorated slightly, but the performance of non-pilot-drivers dropped sharply.

    Control conditions of the experiment rule out the idea that pilots are innately better drivers, said Hunton, since the 'driving with no talking' control proved pilot and non-pilot drivers were equal. However, the study does not rule out the possibility that pilots are innately better at multitasking. Finding out if it's true or not -- along with the efficacy of some sort of driver's education on how to handle cell phone conversations while driving -- is the next logical step of the research, he said.

    Because cell phone conversations lack key non-verbal cues that are available during close-contact conversation, drivers expend significant 'imaginative' resources to compensate, the authors said. So, while the research results agree with previous studies that cell phone conversations consume a great deal of attention and produce considerable interference, it also concludes that drivers can learn to control the situation by learning to emphasize safe driving and making phone conversations a secondary priority.

    "For some, using cell phones while driving is essential to their business activities," said Hunton. "Even if one's livelihood does not depend on cell phone use, many people still want to talk on their phones while driving. Rather than banning the use of cell phones and other technologies, perhaps we should learn how to safely incorporate them into our motor vehicles and driving habits."

    The study findings suggest a possible alternative solution to an all-out ban on using cell phones behind the wheel: those who want to do so must receive driver's education specifically aimed at learning effective techniques for and gaining valuable experience in talking on a cell phone while safely handling a moving vehicle. "This is a learned skill that can be effectively integrated into driver's education," says Lincoln University's Professor Rose.

    Full results of the study will be reported in the August issue of Risk Analysis International Journal.

    Dr. James E. Hunton is Darald and Juliet Libby Professor of Accountancy at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., and Research Professor at Universiteit Maastricht, The Netherlands. He has published over 100 articles and books, specializes in judgment and decision-making research and holds a PhD from the University of Texas-Arlington.

    Dr. Jake Rose is a Professor of Accounting at Lincoln University, New Zealand. His research also focuses on judgment and decision-making. He has published psychology-based studies in a wide variety of academic journals and holds a PhD from Texas A&M University.

    BENTLEY UNIVERSITY is one of the nation’s leading business schools, dedicated to preparing a new kind of business leader – one with the deep technical skills, broad global perspective, and high ethical standards required to make a difference in an ever-changing world. Our rich, diverse arts and sciences program, combined with an advanced business curriculum, prepares informed professionals who make an impact in their chosen fields. Located on a classic New England campus minutes from Boston, Bentley is a dynamic community of leaders, scholars and creative thinkers. The Graduate School emphasizes the impact of technology on business practice, in offerings that include MBA and Master of Science programs, PhD programs in accountancy and in business, and customized executive education programs. The university enrolls approximately 4,100 full-time undergraduate, 140 adult part-time undergraduate, 1,430 graduate, and 43 doctoral students. Bentley is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges; AACSB International – The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business; and the European Quality Improvement System, which benchmarks quality in management and business education. For more information, please visit www.bentley.edu

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