Home > Attention > Choose your level of impairment: you can either a) drive drunk, or b) drive while talking on the phone.

Choose your level of impairment: you can either a) drive drunk, or b) drive while talking on the phone.


The milestone that stands out among teenagers’ exciting and memorable lives is getting one’s license. The excitement that comes with the accomplishment of a driver’s license dominates the high school years sending teens into a euphoric state of independence. Over time, and as licensed teens grow older, parents are likely to sit down with their kids to stress the importance of never getting behind the wheel of a car while under the influence of alcohol because of the dangers of drunk driving. Increasingly over the past few years parents have also recognized the importance of giving the same advice in regards to driving while talking on the phone. There is growing awareness of the need to outlaw cell phone use in the car, especially given the new texting and driving phenomenon (http://www.donttextdrive.com/), however drunk driving and cell phone driving are still not seen as comparable dangers.

Nearly everyone will talk on a cell phone while driving at some point during his or her life. Some people need to make urgent business calls, some people call a friend to ask for


directions, and some people just get bored on their drive home from work. David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, discusses in his research on distracted driving that approximately 8% of drivers on the road at any given time throughout the day are using their cell phone (Glassbrenner, 2005). A majority of drivers believe that phone calls don’t have a distracting effect on them especially if they are using a hands-free device. However, Strayer and his colleagues have found that the attention demanding nature of cell phone conversations make the damaging effects of distracted driving, hands-free device or not, present in nearly all drivers (e.g., Patten et al. 2004; Redelemeier & Tibshirani, 1997; Strayer & Johnston, 2001), save some appropriately named “supertaskers” (Watson & Strayer, 2010) who showed no impairment while talking and driving.

A recent study by David Strayer, Frank Drews, and Dennis Crouch titled “A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver” tested the driving performance of the two groups in an effort to see the relative impairment of a drunk driver and a driver talking on the phone. Their goal was to show possible associations between cell phone use and the likelihood of getting in an accident as well as provide a comparison illustrating the damaging effects of distracted driving. In the experiment, the cell phone drivers used a hands free device and talked on the phone for the entirety of the drive, and the drunk drivers had a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08%. The researchers used a driving simulator to analyze the participants’ performance comparing them to a normal, unimpaired driver called the baseline. In the simulator, the drivers followed behind a “pace car” which would accelerate, brake, and change lanes at random times to imitate an everyday roadway situation. Strayer and colleagues observed certain aspects of the participants’ driving performance including brake reaction time (how long it took them to brake after seeing the pace car’s brake lights), their following distance behind the pace car, their braking force, and how long it took for them to regain normal speed after braking. Also measured was what the experimenters called “time to collision” which predicted the amount of the time it would take for the driver to hit the car in front of them if they didn’t hit the brakes.

The results show that driving drunk and driving while talking on the phone result in equal levels of impairment for drivers but the specific elements of driving performance were different. The intoxicated drivers tended to follow very closely behind the car in front of them, were more vigorous in their driving, and hit the brakes with more force. Otherwise, their speed, number of accidents, and re-acceleration following braking were comparable to the baseline driver data. While there were no reported accidents for the drunk drivers, their tendency to slam on the brakes time to collision (TTC) results projected that the likelihood of their getting in an accident would be high over extended periods of time. On the other hand, drivers who were talking on the cell phone experienced more rear-ending accidents, had longer following distances, and their braking time in response to the car in front of them braking was much slower suggesting the likelihood of their braking being too late in real-road situations and risking increased accident likelihood. It also took the cell phone drivers significantly longer to increase their speed again once they had slowed down. The two conditions showed very different effects on driving performance, but Strayer concludes that in their compliance with road laws ensuring driver safety, the two cases illustrate an equal risk of danger.

There are numerous studies and available data describing the dangerous truths of driving while on a cell phone and yet everyday multiple drivers will talk on their phone while behind the wheel. Strayer, Drews, and Crouch’s article puts the dangers of such distracted driving into perspective by showing how its effects are equally as damaging as driving while under the influence of alcohol. Although driving performance is influenced in different ways, the impairment is equal in severity and accident likelihood is increased significantly in both cases. Some states have taken the step of banning the use of hands-held cell phones in the car, but the use of hands-free devices (that are proven to be just as harmful!) is still permitted. The comparable levels of impairment between drunk driving and cell phone driving illustrated in this study brings into consideration the need for stricter cell phone regulations on the road. While sufficient laws have yet to be enforced, the next time you find yourself waiting to sober up before driving after a few drinks, maybe you will also consider waiting before you pick up the phone while behind the wheel.


Strayer, D. L., Drews, F. A., Crouch, D. J. (2006). A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver. Human Factors, (48) pp. 381-391.

Strayer, D.L., Watson, J.M. (2010). Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 17 (4) pp. 479-485.

You can download the original article here.TXT_print_ATL_R4_Mar_894D71

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  1. April 21st, 2013 at 15:42 | #1

    Very interesting article. There is a lot of social stigma behind driving under the influence of alcohol, but as mentioned in the article 8% of drivers at any given time are engaging in a different but equally dangerous driving activity- using a cell phone. I wonder what it will take for individuals to take distracted driving by means of talking on a cell phone as seriously as individuals take drunk driving. Are charges for being caught drinking and driving similar to those if caught talking on a cell phone and driving in those states where cell phone use while driving is illegal? Somehow I think that they are not…

  2. April 23rd, 2013 at 20:50 | #2

    Many people know someone who has been affected by an individual who was driving under the influence of alcohol; but, we all know at least one person who regularly uses their cell phone while they are driving (whether it be sending a simple text message at a stop sign or placing phone calls to absorb time during their commute to work). We regularly are presented with statistics (in the media) about drunk driving, but when these statistics are compared to cell phone use while driving, it is amazing to note the similarities. We must begin to acknowledge the comparable impairments of using cell phones and driving under the influence. We need stricter cell phone regulations. What will it take for all states to ban cell phone use while driving?

  3. April 24th, 2013 at 23:23 | #3

    This area of research provides evidence that I think is critical for every driver to know. While we often hear about the perils of driving while intoxicated, it is not as often that emphasis is placed on driving impairments resulting from cell-phone use. Even further, the misconception that a hands-free device is safer is quite concerning, especially given that laws have been enacted to suit. This is one area in which awareness is important, because it may well be the case that people believe hands-free devices do not distract driving as much as a hand-held device. I found it most interesting that drunk driving, and cell phone use while driving produced different impairments, though risks are equally as damaging. This article certainly provides insight into distracted and risky driving, and might help to change driving behaviors for the better.

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