Twelve healthy volunteers participated in a crossover design in which each participant completed a simulated driving task on 2 days, separated by a 1-week washout period. On the mobile phone day, participants performed the simulated driving task under each of 4 conditions: no phone usage, a hands-free naturalistic conversation, a hands-free cognitively demanding conversation, and texting. On the alcohol day, participants performed the simulated driving task at four different blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels: 0.00, 0.04, 0.07, and 0.10. Driving performance was assessed by variables including time within target speed range, time spent speeding, braking reaction time, speed deviation, and lateral lane position deviation.
The results show that in the BAC 0.07 and 0.10 alcohol conditions, participants spent less time in the target speed range and more time speeding and took longer to brake in the BAC 0.04, 0.07, and 0.10 than in the BAC 0.00 condition. In the mobile phone condition, participants took longer to brake in the natural hands-free conversation, cognitively demanding hands-free conversation and texting conditions and spent less time in the target speed range and more time speeding in the cognitively demanding, hands-free conversation, and texting conditions. When comparing the 2 conditions, the naturalistic conversation was comparable to the legally permissible BAC level (0.04), and the cognitively demanding and texting conversations were similar to the BAC 0.07 to 0.10 results.
The findings of the current laboratory study suggest that very simple conversations on a mobile phone may not represent a significant driving risk (compared to legally permissible BAC levels), whereas cognitively demanding, hands-free conversation, and particularly texting represent significant risks to driving.