NTSB recommendation rebuttals

I see many comments like “They should ban conversations with car passengers too!” in response to news about the US NTSB recommendation to ban all phone conversations for drivers.

As Rush Limbaugh once liked to say, I can respond to this with half my brain tied behind my back. That link describes a study published three years ago showing drivers are far more distracted talking on a cellular phone than by conversing with a passenger in an automobile.

The study, which used a sophisticated driving simulator, found that when drivers talk on a cell phone, they drift out of their lanes and missed exits more frequently than drivers conversing with a passenger.

“The passenger adds a second set of eyes, and helps the driver navigate and reminds them where to go,” says David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah and a co-author of the study.

Strayer says he often is asked about the distraction caused by conversations with passengers versus people on the other end of a cell phone, “because in both cases you have a conversation.”

But “when you take a look at the data, it turns out that a driver conversing with a passenger is not as impaired a driver talking on a cell phone,” he says. “You see bigger lane deviations for someone talking on a cell phone compared with a driver talking to a passenger. You also find when there is a passenger in the car, almost everyone takes the exit. But half the people talking on the cell phone fail to take the exit.”


  1. One thing not clear in the report on the NHTSB study is whether drivers using a bluetooth or other hands-free device are impaired as much. If not, is it the conversation that is at fault, or the restricted movement of holding the phone.

  2. Here’s a bit from the NTSB report:”Because changes in driving behavior occur when the cognitive distraction of a cellular telephone conversation diverts attention from driving, use of either a handheld or a hands-free cellular telephone while driving can impair driver performance.”

    I had read this before.  While holding the phone also impairs your ability to control the vehicle it can be just as distracting to have a conversation hands free as hand held.  I’ve also been in a car talking with someone and had them take a phone call and seen their driving deteriorate noticably while they talking on the phone compared to talking to a passenger.  I can believe the research is accurate.

    For people that don’t read the NTSB report they note that the driver made 69 phone calls and texts WHILE DRIVING in the 24 hours before the crash.  They made 4 calls in the minutes before the crash and was actually on the phone when the crash occured.

  3. Not only does a passenger provide an extra set of eyes,  a passenger tends to stop talking if traffic gets complicated or the driver needs to pay more attention to the road.  Those lapses in conversation happen naturally, as both driver and passenger are sharing the same sets of experiences,  and go almost unnoticed in the flow of conversation.  This is obviously not the case with a phone conversation.

  4. I think what many people are forgetting is that it’s not about how much distraction a device typically causes. I’m sure that I could drive for thousands of miles while on the phone and not cause any accidents. But it’s that one time when there’s someone in your blind spot, you didn’t do a shoulder check before changing lanes, and boom, you’re now flying through the air screaming over the phone. Only after the fact do drivers realize that possibly their conversation was not worth the harm and damage they just caused. So even though I can talk on the phone safely 99.9% of the time, I’m not going to risk it. My conversation just isn’t worth someone’s life.

    I hope that there is a federal ban on phones very soon, and I also hope that states will adopt this as a primary reason to stop drivers. I believe in many states you can only be cited for this if you were stopped for another violation.

  5. Andy, you’re correct that people can drive dangerously and paradozically go thousands of miles without a crash. It’s this lack of immediate feedback that leads everybody into thinking we’re all above average drivers.

    I spend an hour most days riding a bus and spend some of that time watching traffic. The cell phone users are pretty obvious – they’re the ones who can’t stay between the lane lines. It’s everybody else who take evasive measures to keep from getting sideswiped .

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