Tara Parker-Pope blogged about new research describing results that found talking to the passenger in your car is safer than talking on a cell phone.

David Strayer, professor of psychology at the University of Utah and the study’s lead author [said,] “When you’re in the same physical environment, you tend to adjust your discussions to the difficulty of driving. If driving becomes difficult, they stop talking or they point out hazards.’’

The current research, like virtually all research into driving behaviors, was done in a simulator. But this study also used hands-free cell phones, suggesting that even hands-free isn’t as safe as we might have been led to believe. So states that have banned handset cell phone conversations while allowing hands-free conversations (I’m looking at you New York, New Jersey, D.C. and Connecticut!) are completely missing the point. It wasn’t the physical distraction so much as the psychological — or mental — distraction that’s the problem. (And one of the primary reasons legislatures should wait on the research before passing stupid laws.)

To put the risk into some context, the researchers note that you’re about as likely to get into an accident while talking on a cell phone as if you were legally drunk. Since most of us wouldn’t drive drunk, why do we so willingly put aside similar risk and talk on the phone? Because while the relative risk is significant, the absolute risk of death or serious injury from such an accident remains small.

Although there are approximately 6,000,000 accidents a year, that accounts for only 3 percent of the 2 million drivers in the U.S. Forty-two percent of the time they result in injuries, but only 0.07 percent of the time does someone die. In other words, accidents happen every day and either you or someone you know likely has been in one. But most are fender-benders and very few, statistically, result in serious injury or death. So perhaps on some level we know that an accident is rare, and take that into account when we choose to pick up a cell phone in our car and make a call.

But you can feel a little bit better next time you get into your car with a friend and start chatting. You’re likely being safer than if you had picked up the cell phone instead.

Read the full entry: Chatty Driving: Phones vs. Passengers