Researcher shows phones may improve driving in rare circumstances

A new study by KU researchers suggests that drivers who engage in secondary tasks such as talking on the telephone may perform better under certain circumstances, such as toward the end of a monotonous drive.

Paul Atchley

“The takeaway message is that it’s almost always dangerous to talk on the phone and drive, but there might be some limited situations where cellular technology can improve safety,” said researcher Paul Atchley, associate professor of psychology.

The research appears in the latest issue of Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. It was co-authored by Mark Chan, a graduate student in cognitive psychology.

“We put people in a simulator funded by the KU Transportation Research Institute,” Atchley said. “It was a relatively short drive — about 30 minutes. But it was a boring drive, like you might have in western Kansas, staring at a long road with no turns. We measured the ability to stay on the road and react to events at the beginning and end of the drive.”

The attention level of 45 drivers was measured by their ability to stay inside their lane, steer clear of intruder cars, avoid radical maneuvers to keep a steady course and remember road signs correctly.

The researchers found that talking on the phone in the final stages of a tedious drive actually enhanced driver’ skills at these road challenges.

“If you’re a very fatigued driver, talking to someone on the phone may actually improve your performance,” Atchley said. “In other words, if you’re going to fall asleep and you can’t pull over, talking to someone on the phone my help keep you on the road.”

According to the KU researcher, performing a secondary task could boost mental stimulation overall and help a driver keep focus on the road.

“We currently think it’s just general arousal,” said Atchley. “A conversation is an active task. A radio program is not going to be as effective as an active conversation. You are engaging in an active task and there’s psychological arousal, so we think that has some benefit for performance.”

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