Why a ringing phone may be one of the worst driving distractions

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Researchers say drivers don't adapt their driving behavior when trying to locate their device

Past studies have focused extensively on the negative effects of consumers who use their phones or electronic devices to talk or send messages while driving. But new research shows that something as simple as a ringing phone can also be very distracting.

Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) found that nearly half of all drivers they sampled believed that locating and answering a phone wasn’t as dangerous as talking, texting, or browsing on their device. However, findings show that those precious seconds when a driver's attention isn’t on the road can be costly.

"Finding and reaching for a ringing phone is perceived by drivers as having a mid-range crash risk, however research has showed that this task is one of the most risky activities a driver can engage in," said lead researcher Oscar Oviedo-Trespalacios.

Adapting driving behavior

In a study of 484 drivers, the researchers say that 45% admitted to locating and answering a ringing phone, compared to only 28% who reported speaking on a handheld device. Oviedo-Trespalacios explains why this type of action is perhaps more dangerous than previously thought.

“Drivers are likely to adapt their driving behaviour when talking, texting and browsing, by reducing their speed, increasing their distance from the vehicle in front and scanning their environment more frequently,” he said.

"On the other hand, a ringing mobile phone can occur at any time without giving time for the driver to adapt their behaviour and therefore increases the likelihood of a crash. This mismatch in perception of risk is a major concern revealed by the study."

Among other findings, the researchers say that the study revealed that 12% of drivers don’t believe that talking on a handheld device is dangerous at all when behind the wheel. However, 70% of those surveyed also said that they actively look out for police when using their phone to make sure they aren’t caught. Ovideo-Trespalacios says that new drivers are particularly at risk for these kinds of behaviors because they are more likely to drive while using a mobile phone.

The full study has been published in PLOS ONE.

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