Drivers irate at the slow speeds of
their work day commute may have found a new group to target their
anger against -- cell
phone chatter. A
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
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
"It's a bit like breaking wind in the elevator.
Everyone suffers," Martin states, with regret.
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.
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,"
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
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.