How Distracting is a Cell Phone Really to a Driver? Naturalistic Driving Studies and Driving Simulator Tests Don’t Agree

Naturalistic driving studies that record drivers (through continuous video and kinematic sensors in participants personal vehicles) in actual driving situations are a scientific method to study driver behavior in real-world driving conditions in the presence of real-world daily pressures. In contrast, a driving simulator is not actual driving – driving simulators engage participants in tracking tasks in a laboratory. Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) conducted several large-scale, naturalistic driving studies that continuously observed drivers for more than 6 million miles of driving.

While the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study confirmed the tremendous driver distraction associated with text messaging, the results showed much less driver distraction from speaking and listening than driving simulator tests. The following table summarizes the VTTI results:


  • Light Vehicle/Cars Dialing Cell Phone 2.8 times as high as nondistracted driving
  • Talking/Listening to Cell Phone 1.3 times as high as nondistracted driving
  • Reaching for object 1.4 times as high as nondistracted driving (i.e. electronic device and other)
  • Heavy Vehicles/Trucks Dialing Cell phone 5.9 times as high as nondistracted driving
  • Talking/Listening to Cell Phone 1.0 times as high as nondistracted driving
  • Use/Reach for electronic device 6.7 times as high as nondistracted driving
  • Text messaging 23.2 times as high as nondistracted driving

The key is keeping your eyes on the road. Text messaging had the longest duration of eyes off road time (4.6 s over a 6-s interval). This equates to a driver traveling the length of a football field at 55 mph without looking at the roadway. Talking/listening to a cell phone allowed drivers to maintain eyes on the road, were not associated with an increased safety risk to nearly the same degree, and were not nearly as risky as driving while drunk at the legal limit of alcohol.

This finding contrasts with data recently pried from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showing that drivers talking on their cell phones experience the same potentially deadly distraction whether they are using a handheld device or hands-free technology. True hands-free phone use, such as voice activated systems, are less risky if they are designed well enough so the driver does not have to take their eyes off the road often or for long periods.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute report takes to task recent comparisons made in the literature that it claims greatly exaggerate the cell phone risk relative to the very serious effects of alcohol use. Alcohol use increases the risk of a fatal crash approximately seven times that of sober driving. VTTI argues that, using simple fatal crash and phone use statistics, if talking on cell phones was as risky as driving while drunk, the number of fatal crashes would have increased roughly 50% in the last decade instead of remaining largely unchanged.

One interesting recommendation is to ban all cell phone use by newly licensed teen drivers. The research showed that teens tend to engage in cell phone tasks much more frequently, and in much more risky situations, than adults. The study indicated that teens are four times more likely to get into a related crash or near crash event than their adult counterparts.

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If you or someone close to you has been injured in a motor vehicle accident, contact the personal injury lawyers at Levine & Slavit for their help. To learn more, watch our videos.

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