But, is talking on a hands-free cell phone just as bad as having a few drinks and getting behind the wheel?
Preliminary research done at Touro University in Vallejo gives a tentative yes to that question, a professor said.
California law allows motorists to talk on hands-free cell phone devices, but Touro Associate Professor of Pharmacy Practice Eric Ip said research shows these devices cause driver impairment.
Led by Ip, a team of Touro students and doctoral students used the same kinds of tests police officers give to suspected drunk drivers -- the standardized field sobriety test.
In the test, two groups were assembled to try to show the effect of hands-free cell phones on driving functions, particularly reaction time in the need to brake, swerve or avoid hitting something.
Ip said the research project grew out of students' studies on the effect of various drugs, such as Benadryl and Trazodone, on driving skills. During a discussion about driving, the subject of hands-free devices came up and "we decided why not take a look to see if it really is safer," he said.
Some research has already come out indicating that talking on the phone using hands-free devices while driving slows down reactions.
He and his colleagues decided to use the same kinds of tests law enforcement use on possible drunk drivers and to compare reactions of those talking on hands-free devices to those not talking on a cell phone at all.
Nearly 80 people participated. In one group, some wore a "Bluetooth," a common hands-free cell phone device, but did not talk. Those in the second group also wore Bluetooths and were talking with someone on the other end.
While either talking on the devices or not talking on them, participants were asked to perform three components on the sobriety test -- horizontal gaze test, walk and turn and the one leg stand.
Among those talking on hands-free devices, a little more than one-fourth failed the tests, Ip said. In particular they had slowed reaction time in braking when compared to the others.
"It's not as bad as being drunk but they (those talking and using hands-free devices) failed 27.5 percent of the time," Ip said.
Touro College of Pharmacy students and professors have taken a big interest in driving issues as a major public health concern, Ip said.
The most recent research is by no means definitive and more work is needed, he added. Nevertheless, the campus presented findings at the 2012 California Society of Health-System Pharmacists Seminar Meeting in Las Vegas.
The College of Pharmacy plans to conduct more research and would like to obtain a driver simulator to do more specialized tests, he said. One eye-opening study would be to compare reaction time between those using hands-free devices and those talking on the phone without such devices, he added.
"If more and more studies performed demonstrate impairment with these devices then driving laws may have to be changed," Ip said.
The research study on hands-free cell phones' effect on drivers will also be submitted to a traffic safety journal following peer review for possible publication.
Touro University Research Director Alejandro Gugliucci said the study is just one of many undertaken on the Mare Island campus by both students and faculty
While many research studies are years-long undertakings, the cell phone study is one which could have quick practical results, Gugliucci said.
A major research focus for the campus, he said, is on obesity, diabetes, and cholesterol. Many of the school's studies were presented last month at the school's annual Research Day, including synopsis on studies to find treatment for Alzheimer's and cancer vaccines.
Contact staff writer Sarah Rohrs at firstname.lastname@example.org or (707) 553-6832. Follow her on Twitter @SarahVTH.