U. research details driving danger

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    By Lara Updike

    A man in a gorilla suit walks onto the court during a basketball team, beats his chest, and then walks off court again. The students watching the video clip are oblivious to the hairy interference.

    Beginning psychology students at the University of Utah were instructed to count how many times one of the teams in the clip passes the ball back and forth. Most of them count the passes correctly, but in the process are blinded to the obvious interference.

    It”s the same scenario every semester, said David Strayer, the students” professor.

    Strayer calls it inattention blindness – when the eyes look, but the brain doesn”t see. Strayer has recently finished a study showing the term that describes what happens when drivers pick up their cell phones.

    Since cell phones were invented, citizens and officials alike have worried about the dangers of driving while phoning. However, most people have assumed the danger lies in using a hand to hold the phone, fumbling under the seat to answer a ring or looking down to dial a number.

    But Strayer”s research, which will be published in March”s issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, shows that it makes no difference whether drivers have a handset or headset cell phone.

    Either way, they are a lot more likely to get in an accident than a driver not talking on the phone. Like the psychology students, they are less likely to notice what they see, such as billboards or pedestrians, Strayer said.

    “I”m not trying to say that there aren”t any problems with dialing the phone and holding the phone,” Strayer said. “But even if you get rid of all that, you”re still impaired.”

    Strayer said the distraction of a cell phone impairs driving more than listening to the radio, picking up a drink or disciplining children in the back seat.

    The participants of the study, who drove in a simulator with a 180-degree screen, said they felt they were driving just as well when talking on the phone as when not, Strayer said. He said they didn”t realize what they weren”t noticing.

    Cell phone drivers” inability to recognize how distracted they are may be why American lawmakers haven”t been concerned about headset cell phones.

    The first city in the United States to outlaw driving while phoning was Brooklyn, Ohio, a small-town suburb of Cleveland. The law, passed in 1999, only bans hand-held sets.

    “We elected to allow people to use the hands-free device because then it allows them to have both hands on the steering wheel,” said Rich Hovan, Brooklyn City patrolman who strongly supported the legislation. “We didn”t want to take away everyone”s rights on the issue.”

    Hovan said he believes the law has been effective, though there”s no way to know what things would have happened without the law.

    “Personally, I think that it”s helping out, and if we save one or two lives with this thing, then it”s real important,” he said.

    Since the hand-held ban was passed, Hovan has helped pass out more than 2,000 citations. He has also appeared on Oprah to meet the mother of a 2-year-old who was killed by a driver on a cell phone. Now he said he hands out traffic violations in the name of the woman”s daughter.

    Hovan said his motivation – and the city of Brooklyn”s motivation – is not to raise money. The violation fee would be more than $35 if that were the case, he said. Rather, Hovan said, he hopes to educate the public about the issue.

    In addition to introducing cell phone driving laws, Brooklyn was the first American city to outlaw driving without a seatbelt. Hovan said the city”s leadership on this issue led to federal laws requiring people to wear seatbelts.

    “Brooklyn, Ohio, is going to lead the nation again, as they did with the seatbelt law,” he said. “There”s going to be some sort of hand-held cell phone law throughout the United States.”

    New York has already followed Brooklyn”s lead, and even Utah”s state legislature has brought up the issue in past sessions. This year, though, the only cell phone bill up for discussion is one that will raise the price of dialing 911 on a cell phone.

    The price hike is designed to pay for more phone equipment and employees, which have become necessary since cell phones made it easier for drivers to report car accidents.

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