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Drunk Driving Versus Cell Phones

We vilify drunk drivers. In many people’s minds, drunk drivers are so selfish, so lacking in self-control, that they are willing to put innocent people’s lives at risk. To many, drunk driving is the height of irresponsibility, demonstrating the perpetrator’s indifference to human life.

Groups like MADD have done an excellent job humanizing the victims of drunk driving accidents, often implicitly—sometimes even explicitly—painting the intoxicated driver as morally depraved.

We slap drunk drivers with extremely harsh punishments. Some states have even begun subjecting those convicted of DUI/DWI to the kinds of shame-based punishments that are usually reserved for sex offenders. (For more information, see the article “DUI License Plates—A Shameful Trend.”)

Politicians gain easy points among their constituents by advocating ever-more-extreme punishments for drunk drivers. It’s a tried and true method for appearing tough on crime.

Behind all this lobbying, all these harsh punishments and political posturing, is the assumption that drinking is the worst thing you can do while operating a motor vehicle—the thing that most impairs your ability to drive safely.

But is that really true?

What if you learned that, if you’ve ever talked on a cell phone while driving, your level of impairment was equal to that of someone whose blood alcohol level was above the legal limit?

Although talking while driving doesn’t set off the same moral alarms for most people—and nor is there a giant organization, “Mothers Against Talking While Driving,” which wields a great deal of influence in Washington—the science is clear: using a cell phone in the car is equally dangerous as the drunk driving, if not more so.

Consider the following study by psychologists at the University of Utah:

Subjects in the study drove a virtual-reality car four times: once with no distraction; once while talking on a cell phone, holding the phone in their hands; once while using a headset; and once after having had a few drinks—enough to put them over the .08% limit.

Researchers even noticed that some of the subjects were visibly out of control after drinking.

So how did they do?

The researchers found that when the subjects talked on the phone—either holding it in their hands, or using a headset—they showed the same signs of impairment, and to similar degrees, as when they drove drunk.

Here’s what even more surprising.

When drunk, not a single subject rear-ended the pace car in the experiment. However, three of the subjects crashed into the car while talking on the phone.

Drunk driving is, without a doubt, a significant danger. However, we may want to reconsider how we chose to doll out our moral outrage.