Academic journal article Human Factors

Profiles in Driver Distraction: Effects of Cell Phone Conversations on Younger and Older Drivers

Academic journal article Human Factors

Profiles in Driver Distraction: Effects of Cell Phone Conversations on Younger and Older Drivers

Article excerpt


Summarizing the literature on aging and dual-task performance, Kramer and Larish (1996; see also Craik, 1977, and Hartley, 1992, for similar conclusions) noted that "one of the best exemplars of a mental activity in which large and robust age-related differences have been consistently obtained is dual-task processing" (p. 106). Given that driving is a complex activity involving the combination of a number of task-relevant activities (navigating: maintaining lane position, following distance, and speed: reacting to unexpected events, etc.) and task-irrelevant activities (using a cell phone, adjusting the radio, conversing with passengers, eating, lighting a cigarette, shaving, applying makeup, etc.), it is not surprising that older adults exhibit deficiencies in driving.

In fact, there is a U-shaped function relating fatality rates with age (U.S. Department of Transportation, 2000). Fatality rates systematically decline from teenage years to middle-aged years, followed by a steady increase in fatality rates beginning with sexagenarians. The U-shaped function relating fatality rates with age appears to be multiply determined. On the one hand, younger drivers have less experience, take greater risks, and have a higher likelihood of being intoxicated as compared with drivers in the 35-to 60-year age range. On the other hand, drivers over 65 years of age tend to have more experience. take fewer risks, and are more likely to use scat belts, and they have the lowest proportion of intoxication of all adults. In general, older drivers are also more likely to succumb to the health complications associated with an accident than are younger drivers.

The purpose of the current research is to test the hypothesis that age-related differences in the ability to divide attention between tasks commonly engaged in while driving contributes significantly to the impairments in driving performance associated with senescence. Our current research focuses on a dual-task activity that is currently engaged in by more than 100 million drivers in the United States: the concurrent use of cell phones while driving (Goodman et al., 1997; see also the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association Web site,

It is now well established that cell phone use impairs the driving performance of younger adults (Aim & Nilsson, 1995; Briem & Hedman, 1995; Brookhuis, De Vries, & De Waard, 1991; Brown, Tickner, & Simmonds, 1969; Goodman et al., 1997; McKnight & McKnight, 1993; Redelmeier & Tibshirani, 1997; Strayer, Drews, & Johnston, 2003; Strayer & Johnston, 2001). For example, drivers are more likely to miss critical traffic signals (stop signs, traffic lights, a vehicle braking in front of the driver, etc.), slower to respond to the signals that they do detect, and more likely to be involved in rear-end collisions when they are conversing on a cell phone (D. g. Strayer, Drews, & Johnston, 2003; K. Strayer & Burns, 2004). In addition, even when participants directed their gaze at objects in the driving environment, they often failed to "see" them when they were talking on a cell phone because their attention was directed away from the external environment and toward an internal, cognitive context associated with the phone conversation.

In this article, we explore the extent to which older adults are penalized by this real-world dual-task activity. Based on the aging and dual-task literature, we predict that as the dual-task demands increase, the driving performance of older adults will deteriorate more rapidly than that of younger drivers.

We used a car-following paradigm (see also Alm & Nilsson, 1995; Lee, Vaven, Haake, & Brown, 2001; Strayer, Drews, & Johnston, 2003) in which participants drove on a multilane freeway in single-task (i.e., driving only) and dual-task (i.e., driving and conversing on a cell phone) conditions. …

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