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Hands-free cellphones: A safe alternative?

In New York, and in many other states in the nation, drivers are prohibited from talking or texting on a hand-held cell phone while behind the wheel. This legislation was passed after thousands of people lost their lives from distracted driving car accidents. Hands-free cellphones are a primary cause of manual, visual and cognitive distractions that can lead to a deadly accident. As a result of the ban on hand-held cell phones, many drivers have turned to using hands-free devices. Yet, studies show this may not be a safe alternative.

In a study published by AAA, researchers looked at the amount of cognitive distraction caused by hands-free cellphones in comparison to other distractions drivers experience. Participants were asked to perform a series of tasks while operating a simulator vehicle, as well as a car equipped with monitoring devices. These tasks included the following:

  • Talking on a hand-held cell phone
  • Talking on a hands-free cell phone
  • Speaking with a passenger in the vehicle
  • Listening to the radio
  • Composing an email using voice-activated technology
  • Listening to an audio book

Researchers measured drivers’ heart rate, response time, brain activity and eye movement while they were engaged in the tasks. The results showed that talking on a hands-free cell phone was only slightly less distracting than using a hand-held cellphone.

Hands-free cellphones are still a significant source of cognitive distraction, which occurs when drivers are focused on something other than driving. The brain switches back and forth between driving and maintaining a conversation, leaving moments where drivers are not focused on the road at all. This leaves an opportunity for tragic car accidents.