Cell phones users across the country are slowing their less chatty counterparts' commutes

Drivers irate at the slow speeds of their work day commute may have found a new group to target their anger against -- cell phone chatterA new U.S. study at the University of Utah's Traffic Lab, headed by civil and environmental engineering professor Peter Martin, revealed intriguing insight into why new and innovative traffic control systems have done little to curb the problem of traffic jams.

Martin's team discovered that drivers using cell phones were the major cause of the delays.  They observed that cell phone chatting drivers impede the flow of traffic and clog highways resulting directly in longer commutes for the American worker.

"It's a bit like breaking wind in the elevator. Everyone suffers," Martin states, with regret.

Previous studies have shown that driving while talking or texting on a cell phone is as much of an impairment to safe driving as being mildly intoxicated from alcohol or other substances.

This new study focuses more on how the use of cell phones affects the flow of traffic.  The key is the slow reaction times of cell phone users leads to choppy breaks in the traffic flow.

"When a driver who is not distracted is in a traffic stream and the vehicle in front slows down, the driver will brake in response. When a vehicle speeds up in front, the driver will respond and speed up," Martin explains.

The tests were conducted by 36 university student drivers, traveling along a 9.2 mile stretch of freeway in scenarios in low to high density traffic and speeds resembling an interstate highway.  Half of their trips they used a hands free phone, while the other half they used no phone.  They had to obey traffic laws, but all other decisions and maneuvering preferences were up to them.

The hands free phone conversations proved to be a distraction, slowing the drivers, making it harder for them to react and change lanes.  On average they drove over 2 MPH slower than drivers that weren't distracted.  The net result was that not only did their commute slow -- everyone else's did as well.

Studies show that up to 10 percent of U.S. drivers are using cell phones on the road at any given time.   Also, many of these drivers aren't even using hands-free headsets like the University drivers, so may experience significant physical distractions and impairment as well.

"Delays in traffic streams of very small amounts grow into massive numbers when you project it across a highway and across a nation," Martin says.

Martin and his team for their next project plan to estimate the total financial loss based on this usage.   He has already stated that he thinks the numbers will be very, very high based on this preliminary information.

The U.S. currently has no nationwide ban on cell phone use while driving, although more than 50 nations enforce such a ban.  The U.S. does ban cell phones on planes and many states do have laws in place upping penalties for traffic violations when using a cell phone.  Perhaps when faced with hard numbers of the financial impact of this use, some in the government may be compelled to contemplate tough decisions such as banning cell phone use on highways.

"Young lady, in this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!" -- Homer Simpson
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