Should cell phone bans apply to passengers?

CORNELL (US)—Overhearing people chatting on mobile phones can be more than annoying. It’s so distracting that it affects cognitive performance, new research shows.

Overhearing only half of a conversation—a halfalogue”—is more distracting than other kinds of conversations because the listener misses the other side of the story and so can’t predict the flow of the conversation.

Drivers may be significantly compromised by overhearing the cell phone conversations of their passengers, says Michael Goldstein, assistant professor of psychology at Cornell University, and doctoral candidate Lauren Emberson, who is also affiliated with Weill Cornell Medical College’s Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology.

“Hearing half a conversation is distracting because we are unable to predict the succession of speech. It requires more attention,” says Emberson, first author of a paper on the research that will appear in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science.

“We believe this finding helps reveal how we understand language in conversation: We actively predict what the person is going to say next, and this reduces the difficulty of language comprehension.”

Experiments show that people overhearing cell phone conversations did more poorly on cognitive tasks that demanded the kinds of attention we use to tend to daily activities, than when overhearing both sides of a cell phone conversation or a dialogue, which resulted in no decreased performance.

“Since halfalogues really are more distracting, and you can’t tune them out, people become irritated [and], even more importantly, their cognitive performance is impaired,” Goldstein adds.

While others studies have shown that talking on a cell phone can impair driving performance in contrast to listening to the radio or talking with a passenger, this study takes it a step further.

“Our findings demonstrate that simply overhearing a cell phone conversation is sufficient to reduce performance … [suggesting] that a driver’s attention can be impaired by a passenger’s cell phone conversation,” the researchers write.

With more than 285 million wireless subscribers in the United States alone—and about 4.6 billion cell phone subscribers worldwide, according to the International Telecommunications Union, a U.N. agency—cell phone distraction is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in public places, from coast to coast, the researchers note.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California-Merced contributed to the study.

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chat13 Comments


  1. Chase

    It makes sense, but if this passes…what’s next? No listening to music? No fiddling with navigation systems?

  2. Julie

    I’m sorry, I think people should be able to take a driving test while talking on their phone, while listening to the radio and with a person in the car on the phone, and they should be certified to do the above things. The cell phone ban is stupid because I honestly find it more distracting to try and talk over my car’s synch system than to just hold the phone in my hand. I drive and talk nearly every single time I’m in the car, and I have never been in an accident. I am conscientious, I don’t swerve all over the road when I’m talking, and I manage to be a courteous driver at the same time, not cutting people off, keeping a safe following distance etc. Just because studies show that the average driver is impaired doesn’t mean that I personally am impaired. If I use the hands free, I feel even more impaired. I think people should be able to be certified to talk on the phone and drive. Now, I draw the line at texting. You cannot text and drive. You probably also can’t dial and drive, so people without voice dial shouldn’t be making calls. Also, you can’t use navigation systems that aren’t already dialed in, so putting in addresses while driving should hold the same ban as texting.

    Lots of things are distracting on the road, but people just need to be responsible enough to focus and not pay attention to the conversation next to them. What’s next, banning the person in the front passenger seat from turning to talk to those in the back? That’s also distracting.

    Seriously, please don’t take things too far. I think it’s important to be sure everyone is safe on the road, from themselves and from each other, but there’s also such a thing as being too restrictive.

  3. Robbie

    I love your comment Julie! This is rediculous, I think some people have cell phone envy. They are banned everywhere.

  4. Sam

    Chase — if it’s ever proven that listening to music hugely increases your chances of getting into accident, then yes, they should ban it. However, since the same studies that talk about the dangers of cell phone use often directly compare it to listening to music (or talking to a passenger), it’s abundantly clear that cell phone use is different. That’s no one is (or ever has) seriously considered a ban of car radios.

    Julie — Driving is not a fundamental human right, it’s an act that puts other people in mortal danger if you are not doing it appropriately.

    I can sympathize with the need to be less restrictive as much as possible, but unfortunately the danger of cell phone driving is not a small effect that we can ignore in the name of that. Some studies have pegged its effect to be as bad as drunk driving! If we allow cell phone use while driving, we ought to be consistent and allow drunk driving, as well.

  5. KarenSC

    I like the idea of certifying people to talk and drive. I do find I get distracted, so I just pull over and talk. Heck, having kids it the car is much more distracting…maybe I shouldn’t take them anywhere any more!! Seriously – the halfalogue thing is interesting…I know it bugs me when walking around…thinking that in the future if say, husband is driving and I have to call someone that I’ll just put on the speaker-phone so he can hear both halves of the conversation.

  6. cld

    ban secrecy in cars, i.e., use only speakerphones and sound proof the passenger sections of taxis. or, drug all passengers until they leave the car.

  7. Barb

    I think they should ban cell phones while driving. I don’t care how safe you are driving.My husband is a safe driver.This young kid was driving and texting at the same time and he ran a stop sign and destroyed our truck and hit a elderly man head on and killed him. My husband ended up with a broke knee and and he had to have surgery on his knee with other injuries. This happen November 1 2009 and we are still paying all the doctor bills and emergency rooms. It isnot something you want to deal with. The victims is the ones that suffer, not the guilty one.

  8. Kelly

    So what does this mean for public transit…busses and taxis?

  9. Jane

    I think its a dangerous habit talking over a cell phone while driving. But i don’t think it is the same case for the passengers. I think it is the correct saying on this ‘Driving is not a fundamental human right, it’s an act that puts other people in mortal danger if you are not doing it appropriately’.

  10. Martha

    I don’t think it should be applicable for the passengers. Its the driver who is wholly responsible for the car or vehicles. So it should be applied for the drivers only and that should be a strict rule.

  11. Mary Robenson

    I also it shouldn’t apply to the passengers. I think its enough to restrict the drivers on this case. Please don’t make people’s life miserable.

  12. Curtain Lining ·

    when i bought a car radio, i picked the car radio that is built by philips because they are well built .~*

  13. tania39

    Overhearing only half of a conversation—a halfalogue

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