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Driven to Distraction: Teens Behind the Wheel

Cell Phones Can Be as Dangerous as Alcohol
Teen driving

Tailgating, swerving, constantly changing speed—these seem like signs of drunk driving. But they're actually behaviors of someone on a phone behind the wheel, according to a study at the University of Utah. Researchers used a driving simulator to compare people who were drunk with those on cell phones and found that while people with a blood alcohol content of .08 percent tended to drive more aggressively than cell users, both groups crashed at about the same rate.

A cell phone conversation impairs the brain—similar to the way downing an 80-proof vodka-orange juice cocktail does. But in this case it's an overload of stimuli, not alcohol. "The frontal and parietal cortexes are responsible for spatial processing, decision-making, coordination, and focus—all critical for driving," says study author and psychology professor David Strayer, PhD. A phone conversation introduces other thoughts into that careful calibration. "Overstimulation is actually worse for teens than for adults because their brains aren't fully developed," says Strayer. A teen might look directly at a hazard and still not grasp it; this is called inattention blindness. "The brain may not produce thoughts like, 'That light is red and I should stop,'" Strayer says. The look-but-don't-see phenomenon slows cell users' reaction time and makes them 10 times more likely to run a stop sign. "You'd think drivers would be more likely to notice something important, but they don't," Strayer says. "They're just as blind to a pedestrian as to a billboard." Even people using hands-free phones are four to five times more likely to be in a serious crash than drivers who aren't on a phone. And while drinking-related crashes kill fewer teens today than 20 years ago, non-alcohol driving fatalities are steadily climbing, Strayer says. "We've traded one threat for another."