24 Sep Why Hands-Free Is also Brain-Free Driving
Even though hands-free driving seems like a safe solution to texting and talking on a cell phone, studies have shown that using these devices can be just as dangerous as other forms of distracted driving.
Hands-free devices have long been thought to be a best-of-both-worlds solution to distracted driving. The logic is that even though a driver is having a cell-phone conversation, they’re safe as long as they have their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.
But, according to research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the passage of hands-free laws in three states and the District of Columbia did little to decrease distracted driving-related accidents. The IIHS found that the rate of distracted driving-related crashes either stayed the same or increased.
Defining Distracted Driving
Any activity that takes a driver’s attention away from the road results in distracted driving. Although this includes eating and driving or operating a radio or other infotainment device, the most dangerous distracted driving activity is using a cell phone.
The IIHS reports that data shows that more than 172,000 road deaths and one in 10 crashes over the past five years involved some form of distraction. The AAA recently surveyed drivers about phone use and found that almost half (49%) admitted to talking on a hand-held device and 35% admitted to texting.
Hands-free cell phone calls or texts aren’t the answer to making driving safer. This is because not all forms of distractions affect driving the same way. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies three types of distractions:
- Visual. Visual distractions take a driver’s sight away from the road. This can be reading texts or trying to look at GPS directions.
- Manual. Manual distractions take a driver’s hands away from the wheel. Manual distractions include eating, typing, and adjusting the stereo.
- Cognitive. Cognitive distractions take a driver’s thoughts away from driving. They include speaking, texting, and reading.
While hands-free solutions may stop manual distractions, visual and cognitive distractions still affect driving performance. A vehicle moving at 55 mph can cover the length of a football field in 5 seconds, so even a visual distraction like reading a brief text can result in a deadly crash.
The Myth of Multi-tasking
People believe that they are better at multi-tasking than they actually are. According to the National Safety Council (NSC), what people think is multi-tasking is actually the brain quickly toggling between multiple tasks, instead of focusing on several tasks at the same time. This means that a driver talking on a phone is switching focus between driving and speaking, rather than performing both.
So-called multi-tasking impairs performance across the board. Brain scans taken while a driver is focused on driving, versus when a driver is also listening on a phone show that the ability of the brain to process moving images decreases by one-third. Hands-free devices still impair driving ability, even though they purport to allow drivers to multi-task.
One perceived advantage of hands-free devices is the elimination of texting. Most cell phones have voice-to-text functionality, meaning that typing is no longer required to send texts. A study by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University found that using voice-to-text can be even more distracting and dangerous than typing. Sending texts through voice took drivers twice as long as typing texts with their fingers.
Talking on the phone, even while both hands are on the wheel, is a hazard to drivers. The cognitive distraction of a phone conversation narrows a driver’s field-of-view by 50%, according to the NSC.
Not all conversations are the same, however, and speaking over a hands-free device should not be equated as the same as talking to a passenger. The NSC does not consider speaking to a passenger in the same vehicle as a distraction. In fact, a passenger can act as a second set of eyes, alerting the driver to a potential danger. A passenger is also aware of the road conditions, e.g., heavy traffic or hazards, and can stop talking when the driver needs to concentrate on navigating through tough road conditions.
Ditching the Devices
The best thing drivers can do to prevent distracted driving from cell phones is to stop using them in the car entirely. Hands-free devices are not much better than operating a cell phone with your hands, and may actually lull drivers into a sense of security and safety.
Drivers are better off not using cell phones at all, whether that means turning off their phones, putting their phones in airplane mode, or keeping their phone in the glove compartment. Some developers have even made apps that disable phone features while the user is driving.
Keeping your hands free isn’t enough to stay safe on the road. The key to safe driving is keeping you’re your mind focused on the road ahead.