Driving experiment

Eighth-grader takes on cell phone debate with science project

Posted: Monday, December 05, 2005

A 13-year-old middle school student is working to determine if cell phones are a hazard on the road.

Grayson Carlile, an eighth-grader at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, has teamed up with National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence driver safety instructor John d'Armand to conduct a controlled experiment to see how cell phones may affect a driver's reaction time. Carlile is testing licensed drivers on one of NCADD's high-tech driving simulators for his school's science fair in mid-January.

"Whether you should drive with a cell phone or not is such a big issue right now, and I thought it would be interesting to see if driving with a cell phone and talking on it did affect your reaction time in a car," Carlile said.

For the experiment, subjects accelerate in the simulator as fast as possible down a straight stretch of road while staying in the far right lane. A stop sign appears on the screen when the vehicle reaches approximately 50 miles per hour. The tester then stops as fast as possible and is given a computer readout of their reaction time that measures up to one thousandth of a second.

After doing this three times to become familiar with the machine, the test subject does it six more times - three with a cell phone and three without in a preselected, random order. While conducting the experiment with the cell phone, the subjects are asked to repeat a series of letters and numbers while concentrating on the road.

"It's kind of exciting to do this experiment because I've had the same reservations myself," said d'Armand, who is Carlile's mentor for the project. "I see people using cell phones, and I wonder how distracted they are."

Using cell phones while driving has been a subject of international debate and legal action for multiple years. Dozens of countries have banned drivers from using them while driving, including Australia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Malaysia, Italy, Turkmenistan and Zimbabwe. Most U.S. states have not imposed bans, including Alaska, but several states have placed partial or full restrictions on drivers from using cell phones while driving.

Some states, including Oregon and Nevada, have imposed state legislation restricting county and municipal governments from placing their own bans on the use of cell phones.

Carlile's mother, Jan Carlile, said she hopes her son's science project will provide more information on the ongoing debate.

"I'd like to think that it might raise people's awareness," she said. "It's an issue, and one that should be looked at more carefully."

Along with help from his mother and d'Armand, Grayson Carlile spent Friday running volunteers through the experiment at the Marie Drake building downtown to test his hypothesis that using a cell phone while operating a vehicle will affect a driver's reaction time.

Brittany Lehnhart, a 17-year-old junior at Juneau-Douglas High School, was one of the test subjects Friday afternoon.

"I think trying really hard to listen to those letters and repeat every single one made it so you really weren't paying attention to what you were looking at at all," she said.

Lehnhart, who said she doesn't talk on a cell phone while driving, said this type of experiment would be beneficial for all drivers, especially younger ones.

"I think it's a good (experiment), especially for teens because a lot of kids are just so into being on their cell phone and knowing where everyone is at once," she said. "It would be nice if people could actually do this whole test because I didn't think it would have that much affect on my driving, but just doing it made me feel like I was totally not in control at all."

Grayson Carlile said the idea for the experiment blossomed out of observing drivers that seemed to be distracted while using cell phones.

"It's obvious that they're very distracted from everything around them and they're mostly just concentrating on their conversation - and maybe a little bit on the lights - but not the other cars around them," he said.

Carlile said the requirement of a science fair project gave him an opportunity to test out one of his concerns.

"I always look at the science fair as a really good opportunity for one to practice and learn what it takes to do a long and involved project, especially when you need someone like a coach or a mentor or a helper," he said. "I think it's just really interesting to learn about the scientific process and what it takes to complete a controlled experiment."

Carlisle isn't old enough to get a driver's permit. Watching him has been rewarding, d'Armand said.

"To have someone like Grayson, with his very positive attitude and his humanitarian attitude, who obviously wants to point out a possible hazard and help humanity, it's quite refreshing," he said.

Carlile said he wants to make his findings available to the public when he finishes the project. He is still looking for more people to help him today. Anyone who is interested can contact JDHS for more information.

When the project is complete, d'Armand said he thinks the results will be telling.

"My suspicion is that is what this experiment will show is selective attention," he said. "You select the cell phone as the thing to which you're going to give your primary attention, therefore it deprives other things deserving of that attention."

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