The House of Delegates in the state of Virginia approved a bill on February 21 that would prohibit teenagers from using their cell phones while driving. It’s a small but significant step towards making the roads safer. Studies show drivers of all ages who use the phone behind the wheel endanger themselves and everyone in the vicinity. One recent study suggests the risk is even greater when teenage drivers are on the phone.
Under the bill, drivers ages 15, 16 and 17 would not be able to talk, send text messages or snap photos with a phone while on Virginia roads, according to The Washington Post, which reported on the new legislation. The ban would also apply to hands-free devices but would allow teens to use a phone during an emergency.
Sponsored by Sen. James K. “Jay” O’Brien Jr., the proposal gained momentum after a spate of fatal accidents involving teenagers on Washington area highways that spurred debate in the region about teen driving safety. Adjoining Maryland led the way, passing a series of teen driving bills in 2005, and the District requires all drivers to use hands-free devices to talk on the phone. Rep. O’Brien resisted efforts in Virginia to make exceptions for teenagers using hands-free devices. In the hand or hands-free, he said, the distraction for teens is the same. “They’re taking their concentration off the road and giving it to a conversation during a period when they have zero driving experience.”
A February 2005 study from the University of Utah underpins this line of reasoning. Published by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES), it says talking and driving turns the response time of the average 20-year-old to that of 70-year-old. Researchers David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, and Frank Drews, an assistant professor in the same department, used simulators to test the reaction time of 18- to 25-year-olds as well as reactions of 65- to 74-year-olds.
Using a cell phone, Dr. Strayer told the Associated Press, one of many news organizations around the world that reported the findings, had an “instant aging” effect on younger drivers. “If you put a 20-year-old driver behind the wheel with a cell phone, his reaction times are the same as a 70-year-old driver.”
The researchers put participants on four simulated 10-mile trips lasting 10-minutes each. Participants talked on a cell phone during half of the trips and drove without talking for the other half. Only hands-free cell phones were used for the study. They found that young drivers were 18 percent slower in braking response time and took 17 percent longer to regain the speed they lost while braking when they were using the cell phone. While the time increases could be measured in milliseconds, said Dr. Strayer, the increased reaction time could still be enough to make the difference between hitting a child in the street and avoiding the situation.
In early 2006 the two Utah researchers completed a study that compared driving while using a cell phone to drunk driving. Their statistical analysis showed cell phone users were 5.36 times more likely to get in an accident than undistracted drivers