Driver Knowledge Tests

Is talking to a passenger as risky as talking to someone on a cellphone while driving?

It’s a question that’s frequently asked: if it’s so dangerous to talk to someone on a cellphone while driving, is there the same danger when talking to a passenger in your car? It was a question that prompted a study by University of Illinois psychology professor and Beckman Institute director Arthur Kramer, postdoctoral fellow Kyle Mathewson and graduate student John Gaspar.

While driving is a complex task in itself, drivers are often called upon to communicate with passengers in the car and, since the advent of mobile phones, people who aren’t in the car and have no idea of what the current driving situation involves.

The study set up four different scenarios in a simulator: a driver with no passenger or phone call, a driver talking to a passenger in the front seat, a driver talking on the phone to a person who couldn’t see the simulator or the driver, and a driver talking to a person on the phone but the person could see the driver’s face and what was ahead of the vehicle on a video display. Everything the drivers did while they were driving was recorded including their lane position, reaction times, ability to navigate to a destination, their eye movements and their conversation.

The first result (the driver with no passenger or cellphone conversation) was the result with the least accidents. Adding a passenger into the car increased the accident rate slightly, but not by much. Making the driver talk on a cellphone increased the accident rate by three times. But when it came to talking to someone on a cellphone who could see the driver’s reactions and the road ahead, the results were interesting.

“We’ve done years of study on driver distraction, and previous studies suggest that passengers often aren’t distracting. In fact, passengers can be helpful, especially if they’re adults who have had experience and also are active drivers themselves,” said Arthur Kramer.

It seems that this helpfulness is extended to those conversation partners who could see the driver on the video screen. “Drivers were less likely to be involved in a collision when their remote partner could see what they were seeing,” Gaspar said. “And this benefit seems to be driven by changes in the way partners talked to the driver.”

The passenger adjusts their conversation speed and intensity in relation to the situation that the driver is facing. The passenger actually helps the driver in many cases, identifying road conditions and helping with navigation and road signs. When the passenger sees that a challenging situation is arising, they tend to stop speaking. There is also less pressure on the driver because they can stop speaking and the passenger understands the reasons why. Some of this is translated across to having a remote conversation partner also being able to see the driver and the road ahead and it resulted in 40-50% fewer crashes than with a driver just talking on a cellphone to a remote person that couldn’t see.

Darren is an expert on driving and transport, and is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists

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