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The illusion of safety: Hands-free device use by drivers

June 26, 2017

Studies show hands-free technology does not eliminate cognitive distraction.

hand on steering wheel

Nothing diminishes the sorrow when a life is lost in a traffic incident, but if the tragedy can shed light and improve public awareness on safer driving practices, there is an opportunity for some greater good.

A U.S. court case stemming from a 2015 auto crash that resulted in the death of an Ohio man is raising questions about the safety of using hands-free devices while driving. In this incident, the defense attorney, whose client was charged with aggravated vehicular homicide and texting while driving, argued that the defendant did not violate Ohio’s existing law because he was using a hands-free, talk-and-text feature.

While this article makes no judgment on the guilt or innocence of the aforementioned defendant, the case presents an opportunity for governments, employers and — perhaps most importantly — drivers to look at the bigger picture and reconsider their thinking on the use of hands-free communications technology while driving.

It seems counterintuitive that hands-free devices would pose a significant distracted driving risk. After all, they give you the ability to keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road, reducing the physical distraction of holding a device and the visual distraction of looking at it. However, research shows the cognitive distraction of even speaking on a phone creates its own, significant dangers.

Psychologists at the University of Sussex in England published a study that showed drivers immersed in conversations that triggered their visual imagination detected fewer road hazards than those who were not. They actually failed to see certain hazards directly in front of them and focused on a smaller area of the road ahead than drivers not involved in such conversations.

The study indicated that talking with fellow passengers poses less risk than cellphone conversations because passengers tend to moderate the discussion when road hazards become apparent and they share non-verbal cues that create a less cognitively demanding conversation. Without these visual cues, the conversation requires more attentiveness on the part of the driver. Naturally, the person on the other end of the phone is unaware of quickly changing travel conditions or certain other factors affecting the driver and cannot react accordingly.

The U.S.-based National Safety Council (NSC) also weighed in on cognitive distraction and driving risks with the comprehensive white paper, “Understanding the Distracted Brain: Why Driving While Using Hands-free Cell Phones Is Risky Behavior.” The report draws on 30 scientific research studies, all of which show hands-free phones offer no significant safety benefit when driving.  The NSC report concludes, “The cognitive distraction from paying attention to conversation — from listening and responding to a disembodied voice — contributes to numerous driving impairments.”

Drivers, and sometimes the companies they work for, may see the use of a phone while driving as part of vital multitasking. However, the NSC report dismisses the very notion of multitasking as a myth: “Human brains do not perform two tasks at the same time. Instead, the brain handles tasks sequentially, switching between one task and another. Brains can juggle tasks very rapidly, which leads us to erroneously believe we are doing two tasks at the same time.”

A 2013 article in Time cited a 2010 study by French neuroscientists that supports the NSC statement, showing not only that the human brain wasn’t designed to multitask, but that multitasking can actually have harmful effects on brain function.

As information about the dire consequences of distracted driving has been more widely shared, lawmakers and employers have enacted legislation and work policies designed to prevent use of cellphones and other mobile technology while driving. However, the majority of those laws and policies either explicitly allow hands-free device use, as was the argument in the aforementioned Ohio court case, or allow it by omitting mention of specific hands-free technology. While these laws attempt to address physical and visual distraction, research indicates the laws have a huge blind spot with regard to cognitive distraction.

“Blind spot” may be exactly the right term for this issue, too. The NSC report mentions “inattention blindness.” The phrase comes from research showing drivers using cellphones look at the road ahead but fail to see up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment.

Think about that. When you talk on the phone while behind the wheel, you may only be seeing half of what you need to observe to drive safely. Imagine some of the information that might fall out of the 50 percent of information your brain is processing: a change in speed limit, an accident on the side of an icy road … or a child darting out unexpectedly into the path of your vehicle.

Yes, you can lose focus driving without using a cellphone or other device. Even the most attentive drivers make mistakes. Accidents can happen even when we try to be as alert and focused as possible.

But the research on hands-free phone use should inspire us all to think more broadly about driving distractions. People are more tied to their mobile technology than ever before and there are no indications that will change anytime soon. Now is the time to address the risks of hands-free device use.

Legislators and voters need to be aware of all the risks when these laws are considered. Companies need to examine what they ask drivers to do beyond safely operating their vehicles. And all of us, whether driving for personal or professional reasons, need to realize that hands-free technology is not the solution to our growing distracted driving problem .