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No talking while driving?

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By Alan Mozes
HealthDay Reporter

(HealthDay News) --Talking while driving -- whether on a cellphone or simply conversing with a passenger -- undermines road safety, a new review claims.

Drivers who talk, the researchers found, are less safe than drivers who stay quiet.

"It is a common misconception that tasks that allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road are distraction-free," said study co-author Sarah Simmons, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Calgary in Canada.

"[But] there is more to distraction than just visual attention. It is important to know that distraction occurs whenever drivers take their mind off the road," she said.

Simmons and her colleagues reviewed research on driving distractions that spanned a quarter century. Their findings were published in the February issue of the journal Human Factors.

"Dialing a phone, which requires the driver to momentarily look away from the road, was detrimental to driving performance," Simmons said. "However, tasks that do not require the driver to look away from the road -- such as talking on a hand-held or hands-free phone or to a passenger -- also had negative effects on driving performance."

Writing in the study, the researchers acknowledged that "conversation with passengers is generally socially accepted and nearly universally common." However, they concluded that when it comes to undermining driver attention, the "costs of conversation [with passengers] on driving performance are similar to those exerted by cellphone conversation."

The researchers noted that a substantial number of people use cellphones while driving. They cited a 2015 study that found nearly 4 percent of American drivers, operating roughly 542,000 cars, had used a hand-held cellphone while driving during daylight.

Another study from 2013 reported that nearly 62 percent of American drivers say they either make or take calls while on the road.

Doing so has costs. Cellphone use was a contributing cause in roughly 34,000 car crashes and more than 400 fatalities, according to 2013 data from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

For the new review, the researchers analyzed data from 93 studies, conducted from 1991 to 2015. They involved about 4,400 drivers, 14 to 84 years old.

The safety concerns analyzed by the team included:

A driver's ability to react quickly to potential problems, including the ever-shifting proximity to other cars or pedestrians,

The ability to quickly detect road signage,

The ability to stay safely within a designated lane,

The ability to maintain a safe speed and distance from other vehicles,

The ability to take note of safety indicators adequately, such as the speedometer and mirrors,

The ability to avoid a crash.

The investigators concluded that "hand-held and hands-free phone conversation produces similar driving performance costs" by most safety measures. They noted, though, that having to actually handle a phone while driving probably creates a bigger distraction.

Conversation between a driver and passenger had "similar" negative effects on driving safety as cellphone use -- undermining reaction time, lane position, sign recognition, speed and distance control, and collision risk.

Does that mean, then, that drivers should drive in absolute silence?

The study authors did not respond to HealthDay's request for comment on this.

However, David Reich, public relations director for the National Road Safety Foundation in New York City, acknowledged "that it would be difficult to stop all conversation between a driver and passengers.

"However, if drivers are made aware of the risk of distraction, hopefully they may minimize conversations," he said, "or at least try to be more alert to the road around them even as they converse."

While the world awaits the widespread introduction of driverless cars, Reich said, technology is already helping keep drivers more focused on the task at hand.

"Lane departure warnings, automatic braking that slows or stops the car to prevent a collision, back-up cameras and warnings, blind-spot warnings and more" can make roads safer, he said.

More information

The National Safety Council has more on driving while distracted.

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