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Safe and Responsible Driving: The Impact of Cell Phone on Drivers' Reaction Time

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Driving is an everyday activity that gets more difficult with age. (Hickson, Wood, Chaparro, Lacherez & Marszalek, 2010) Older drivers are shown to have higher risk of motor vehicle collision related death compared to other age groups. (Green, McGwin & Owsley, 2013) The ability to respond in a timely and appropriate fashion to ongoing events in the environment differs with age (Campbell et al., 2015) Using a cell phone while driving has also been shown to affect driver safety. The number of drivers’ using cell phones continues to increase as time goes on. Reaction time to hazards was shown to increase when the was holding a phone conversation. (Collet, Guillot & Petit, 2010) Attending to auditory information has been shown to impair performance on concurrent cognitive and motor tasks. (Hickson, Wood, Chaparro, Lacherez & Marszalek, 2010) Cell phone conversations by themselves make drivers more likely to miss traffic signals and react more slowly to the signals they are able to detect. Previous research indicates that when a driver becomes involved in a cell-phone conversation their attention is taken away from processing the information in their driving environment that is necessary for safe driving. (Strayer & Drews, 2007) The decrease in performance on a primary task is believed to occur because the extra effort associated with listening to and understanding a degraded auditory signal deprives resources from other cognitive processes (Hickson, Wood, Chaparro, Lacherez & Marszalek, 2010)

Research shows that hearing and vision impairment is common in older adults. (Green, McGwin & Owsley, 2013) Previous research has suggested a link between hearing impairment and difficulties with driving in older people. These older adults with poor hearing have been show to have greater difficulty with driving in the presence of distractors than older adults with good hearing. (Hickson, Wood, Chaparro, Lacherez & Marszalek, 2010) If you add a cell phone into the mix, driving conditions become unsafe quickly. The number of drivers over 75 is expected to increase 70% over the next 20 years. With the increased risk involved with elderly drivers combined with the increasing number of people using cell phones while driving older driver safety is becoming an even larger safety concern. (Green, McGwin & Owsley, 2013)

The current study aims to examine the relationship between cell phone conversations while operating a motor vehicle in older drivers. A group of older participants will be assessed, and their performance while driving with or without a cell phone will be compared. It is hypothesized that age will affect driving ability while talking on the phone given previous evidence of the risks both age and cell phone use pose while driving.


100 licensed older drivers will be recruited to participate through radio advertisements. Participants should be age 65 and older, current drivers and legally eligible to drive. Participants will attend two testing sessions. The first will be a session in which demographic information is collected as well as assessments of vision, cognition and hearing. The second session will be a driving assessment on a closed road. All participants will be given a full explanation of the experimental procedures, and written informed consent will be obtained, with the option to withdraw from the study at any time. Driving performance will be tested in two separate laps on a 2 mile closed road in a rural area, free from other vehicles. Participants will either be positioned and adjusted with a hands-free cell phone before driving begins and a call will begin before participants begin driving or they will drive without being on the phone. Participants will all drive the same vehicle with automatic transmission and power steering. If participants normally wear glasses or hearing aids they will do so during the assessment. Participants will be told they will be required to perform a number of tasks at what they feel is a safe driving speed, to drive in their own lane except to avoid hazards, and to drive as they normally would under the circumstances. Participants will be required to avoid hitting any of nice, large, low contrast foam rubber road hazards centered across the driving lane that can be felt when driven over but will have little effect on vehicle control. Position of the road hazards will be randomized between each lap. Performance will be measured on the number of road hazards hit. (Hickson, Wood, Chaparro, Lacherez & Marszalek, 2010)


I expect to find significant results from this study as prior research shows that age and cell phone use while driving affect ability separately so the two should provide the same result when combined. It is possible that there may be too many confounding variables to pinpoint the exact cause of the distracted driving but I hope to limit these by using a hands free cell phone, closed road and documenting health issues beforehand. There are a number of ways to test this hypothesis such as using different driving ability tests, using a handheld cell phone or having the driver start and end the call while driving amongst other things. It is important to do as much research as possible into distracted drivers and elderly drivers as both populations will continue to increase and combine in the future.

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