Driving and Talking

Driving and Talking Photo Credit: Clipart.com

Driving interferes with speaking and language comprehension.


Sloppy car talk. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Studies show that talking on a cell phone impairs your driving. Now, a team led by Ensar Becic of the University of Illinois has found that the reverse is also true. Becic's colleague, psychologist Gary Dell, says that when people were driving, as opposed to just sitting in a car, they told pre-memorized stories less accurately. They also had trouble listening to somebody else, whether that person was on a phone or sitting beside them. Dell says driving and talking seem to compete for your attention.

What we found is that if you don't really pay attention to your talking—if you protect your driving—your talking gets bad. So, if you're going to want to get your talking right, your driving is going to suffer.

So you might want to avoid really important topics when you're behind the wheel. I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

Many recent studies have looked at the effects of cell phone conversations on driving, and the results aren't pretty. At least one study found that talking on a cell phone affects your driving just as much as being legally drunk. And while some laws have banned only hand-held cell phones, research indicates that talking on a hands-free phone is just as bad. That's because phone conversations impair your driving because they interfere with your attention, rather than simply giving your hands too much to do. 

However, there's been very little research on how driving affects your ability to hold a conversation. This is understandable, since driving skills can have life-or-death consequences, while conversational fluency seems less important. However, this study shows that there may truly be a trade-off between driving and talking—and knowing that can help us protect our driving skills when we need them most.

In this experiment, volunteers always sat in cars, and either repeated a story that they'd learned earlier, or listened to a story told by someone on a hands-free phone or in the passenger seat. When the volunteers were driving, they re-told the memorized story less accurately. They also had more trouble remembering stories they heard while they were driving when asked to repeat them later on. Interestingly, the effect was the same whether they were listening to a phone call or a live passenger, which hasn't been true in many studies that focused on driving skills. Dell adds that while the youngest volunteers generally had better memories than the oldest ones, driving took a similar toll on each age group's conversations.

The bottom line, according to Dell, is that there seems to be a trade-off between driving and talking, if you try to do them at the same time. It's reasonable to assume that in most circumstances, people pay a little less attention to conversations when the driving gets difficult—even if the person talking to the driver doesn't notice. However, important, demanding discussions, like working out a business deal, or even trying to figure out where you are, might distract a driver from the road ahead. So if you're driving, and you find yourself in a high-stakes conversation, you might want to save it for later—or simply pull over.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. How does this study differ from most other studies of driving and talking?
  2. Why is it important to find out if driving impairs talking?
  3. How does this result support previous findings that cell phone conversations impair driving?
  4. Suppose, instead, the study found that driving has no impact on your ability to listen or speak. How would you interpret that result?

Going Further

For Educators

The Digital You: Attention, Multitasking, and Addiction, a video from Thinkfinity, explores the demands our technological world makes on our attention, and how to better balance our relationship with the gadgets in our lives.

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