Talking on a cell phone while driving quadruples the risk of a crash even when a driver is using a hands-free device, research from UC San Diego shows.
Researchers from the university's Training, Research and Education for Driving Safety (TREDS) program used a driving simulator to study distraction and found drivers using cell phones fail to see up to 50 percent of the environment around them.
Yet, more than 650,000 drivers in the U.S. are using their phones while driving at any given moment, according to TREDS.
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"When you’re talking to somebody on the phone your thoughts are elsewhere, your brain is elsewhere, and it’s different than talking to a passenger," program director Dr. Linda Hill, MD, MPH, said.
Texting while driving increases the risk of a crash by eight times. With the average text taking 4.7 seconds to send, researchers said at 45 miles per hour, it is like someone driving blind the entire length of a football field.
But the risk of a crash can last up to five times longer than the length it takes to send the text because of something researchers have dubbed "distraction hangover."
"The concept is that when you look at a text or hang up the phone and that can be as long as 25 seconds your brain is elsewhere," she said. "You’re just not focusing on the task at hand."
TREDS said part of the problem is that most social media apps require a user to use their visual, manual and cognitive abilities, meaning those abilities aren't being used to focus on the road.
The university's research has shown the brain is not able to perform two "thinking tasks" at the same time -- it actually switches between activities.
"Driving is such a complex task that it doesn’t matter how good you are at driving or texting. Putting those together just compounds an issue," Sarah Hacker, UC San Diego Research supervisor, said.
April is Distracted Driving Awareness month and the National Safety Council is urging drivers to take the pledge to drive without distractions. Learn more here.