Method: We used a high-ﬁdelity driving simulator to compare the performance of cell phone drivers with drivers who were intoxicated from ethanol (i.e., blood alcohol concentration at 0.08% weight/volume). Results: When drivers were conversing on either a handheld or hands-free cell phone, their braking reactions were delayed and they were involved in more trafﬁc accidents than when they were not conversing on a cell phone. By contrast, when drivers were intoxicated from ethanol they exhibited a more aggressive driving style, following closer to the vehicle immediately in front of them and applying more force while braking. Conclusion: When driving conditions and time on task were controlled for, the impairments associated with using a cell phone while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunkThat and similar research has led to bans on hand-held (though usually not hands-free) cell phone use in many locations. Statistics are hard to come by but there are more alcohol-related accidents and many more alcohol-related deaths than those due to cell phones. Yet there are far more people talking on cell phones than driving drunk. This contradiction bugged me. What's going on?
Unlike using a cell phone, drunk driving is not a binary event. It's not that you are either drunk or you aren't. There are degrees based on the blood alcohol level. The real dangerous drivers are those way over the legal limit. Driving at the legal limit (0.08% in Illinois) isn't that dangerous or the limit would be lower.
When we hear that using cell phones are just as dangerous as driving drunk, we think, wow, cell phones are very dangerous. But our thoughts of the dangers of drunk driving is not at the level of drunkedness that are compared to cell phones.
Driving at the legal limit and on your cell phone are only mildly more dangerous than driving sober and distraction free. I'm not recommending that you drink or use your cell phones while you drive, you are certainly safer without doing so. But you should also be careful about reports about the dangers of activities and be sure the comparisons are correct.