Study: Hands-free devices not risk free

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Distracted drivers kill more than 3,000 Americans each year and cause hundreds of thousands of injuries, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Texting while driving is the primary reason for many serious accidents. Although hands-free devices have become a popular solution for busy drivers, a new study sponsored by the American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety shows that operating a hands-free device on the road is almost as dangerous as operating a traditional cellphone.

Different kinds of distraction

New research shows that one of the most deadly forms of distraction has nothing to do with holding a phone, tapping out a text or looking at a screen—it has to do with the driver’s brain. According to distraction.gov, drivers can be visually distracted (the driver’s eyes are off the road), manually distracted (the driver’s hands are occupied with something other than driving), or cognitively distracted (the driver’s mind is distracted from the primary task of driving.) A hands-free device offers no protection against the dangers of cognitive distraction.

High risk associated with hands-free communication

In a recent experiment, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety measured the reaction time and brain function of drivers while performing various distracting tasks in addition to driving. Drivers were also tested while paying full attention to the road with no distractions. When they used a handheld cellphone, their driving performance dropped sharply. When the same drivers switched to a hands-free phone, they were almost as badly impaired.

Researchers set up a scale to compare the levels of cognitive distraction measured during these activities. Unimpaired driving was set at 1.0 on the scale. Solving a series of complex math and verbal problems was set at 5.0. Using a handheld phone caused a distraction factor of 2.45, while using a hands-free device caused a level of 2.27. Using a speech-to-text system caused the highest level of driver distraction at 3.06.

Dangers of cognitive distraction

Even if drivers have their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, they are putting themselves and others at risk by driving while cognitively distracted. Using a hands-free device or engaging in other behavior while driving can cause the following problems:

  • Slower reaction times
  • Less sensitivity to visual cues
  • Impaired scanning of the environment
  • Decreased peripheral vision

These side effects of cognitive distraction can result in injury or death. Illinois law already forbids texting or using a hand-held cellphone while driving. This new AAA study shows that the safest choice of all is a simple one: drivers should avoid all distractions and give their undivided attention to the road.