Driving while on the cell phone leads to impaired talking

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Most people know that talking on a cell phone while trying to navigate a motor vehicle can impair driving. A new study shows the converse is true - driving while talking on the cell phone can lower comprehension of what is being said, and impair talking.

The findings come from University of Illionois researchers. Gary Dell, a psycholinguist in the department of psychology at Illinois and corresponding author of the study says this is the first study that shows that driving impairs language skills. Previous studies showed no effect on speech from driving and talking on the phone - something that puzzled language specialists.

"The previous findings made no sense to those of us who have studied language," Dell said. "You might think that talking is an easy thing to do and that comprehending language is easy. But it's not. Speech production and speech comprehension are attention-demanding activities, and so they ought to compete with other tasks that require your attention – like driving."


Using a simulator at Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois, study participants were paired up as passengers with the drivers or engaged in conversation with the driver using a hands free cell phone from a remote location.

Ninety six study participants either sat in an unmoving vehicle or found their way through busy streets while listening to and then retelling four previously unheard brief stories. At the end of the simulation the group was asked to recall everything they remembered about the stories.

Older subjects performed more poorly than the younger group, and "the drivers remembered 20 percent less of what was told to them when they were driving." Less accuracy of retelling the stories was found while drivers navigated through intersections or encountered more demanding traffic conditions.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found "that various aspects of language go to hell when you're driving," said psychology professor Art Kramer, who collaborated on the study. Driving and talking on the cell phone can impair driving, and conversely cell phone use while driving can also hinder talking.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign