You might think that you can handle two things at once, but if you try to combine talking with driving, you may be making a costly mistake. New research suggests that driving while distracted with cell phone conversations is hazardous to everyone on the road.

Researchers at the University of Utah found that drivers talking on a cell phone were four times more likely to fail at basic driving tasks than those talking with a fellow passenger. Published last December in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, the study shows that drivers on cell phones are apt to swerve into other lanes and miss exits. “It turns out that a driver conversing with a passenger is not as impaired as a driver talking on a cell phone,” says University of Utah psychologist Dr. David Strayer. “The difference between a cell phone conversation and passenger conversation is due to the fact that the passenger is in the vehicle and knows what the traffic conditions are like, and they help their drivers by reminding them of where to take an exit and pointing out hazards.”

Even hands-free cell phone use is substantially more dangerous than using no cell phone at all.

For years, the University of Utah has studied the effects of cell phones on driver behavior and competence. Research in 2006 showed that drivers on cell phones were just as impaired as those with a 0.08 percent blood alcohol level, which is the legal limit for drunk driving. In 2005, Strayer and researchers conducted an experiment in which drivers’ brain activity was tracked while using hands-free cell phone devices. They found that the drivers took 50 percent longer to react to normal traffic changes. The likelihood of getting into an accident while talking on a cell phone, even hands-free, significantly increased.

Currently, five states and the District of Columbia ban talking on a handheld device while driving, and violators can be ticketed. Further, seven states and the District have a ban on driving and text messaging. Seventeen states have stricter restrictions for novice drivers and/or drivers under the age of 18. Find out what the law is in your state by visiting the website for the Governors’ Highway Safety Association.

The National Safety Council (NSC) advocates a ban nationwide on the use of cell phones. Last month, NSC President and CEO Janet Froetscher called for businesses to implement policies to prohibit their workers from using cell phones while driving. She encouraged governors and other state lawmakers to ban cell phones in their respective jurisdictions. The Council also added “distracted driving” education to its defensive driving training.

In 2002, Harvard researchers estimated that one in 20 traffic accidents was linked to cell phone usage while driving. They said that each year, 2,600 people die as a result, and 330,000 suffer injuries.

In a recent press release, Froestscher noted, “The change we are looking for, to stop cell phone use while driving, won’t happen overnight. There will be a day, however, when we look back and wonder how we could have been so reckless with our cell phones and texting devices.”

The Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America encourages Laborers and their families to be safe behind the wheel. Refrain from talking on a cell phone when you are driving and educate your young drivers on the importance of being alert and attentive on the road. Getting home safely should be everyone’s goal.

[Jennifer E. Jones]