Distracted driving, particularly driving while texting, talking on a cell phone, or using another electronic handheld device, is a serious problem affecting our nation today, causing thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries every year. (According to Distraction.gov, the official government website on distracted driving, 3,331 deaths and 387,000 injuries were caused by distracted driving in 2011.)
Lawmakers and safety advocates have been energetically seeking a solution to this dangerous trend. To keep drivers’ eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel, lawmakers have passed laws outlawing texting and handheld cell phone use. In addition, automakers have introduced features that allow drivers to use their devices hands-free.
A new study by the AAA Foundation for Highway Safety suggests, however, that hands-free cell phone use—touted by automakers as a safe alternative and still allowed by law—is just as dangerous as texting or using a handheld device.
These hands-free systems, offered as a feature in many car models today, allow drivers to use voice commands to operate their phone or other electronic device. Using these systems, drivers can send a text or email, update their Facebook page, and more.
According to The New York Times, the study found that the hands-free systems in vehicles “create a different, and worse, safety risk, by taking a driver’s mind, if not eyes, off the road.”
Yolanda Cade, spokesperson for the Foundation for Highway Safety, stated, “What we really have on our hands is a looming public safety crisis with the proliferation of these vehicles.”
Researchers performing the study compared the impact of various distractions—listening to a book on tape or the radio and talking on a handheld or hands-free phone—on drivers. The researchers used both a driver simulator and a car with measurement tools installed in order to evaluate the performance of the drivers.
The study was led by David Strayer, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah who has studied driver behavior and attention for twenty years.
The results of the study are startling: hands-free, voice recognition systems caused a “higher level of cognitive distraction than any of the other activities.” Using eye-tracking tools, the study found that drivers engaged in hands-free cell phone use were less likely to check for pedestrians in crosswalks. The drivers’ areas of the brain activated when driving also showed less activity, demonstrating that using hands-free systems impaired their ability to drive.
Strayer warned that using these systems to send emails or texts or to update Facebook is no safer than doing so with your phone held in hand: “The assumption is if you’re doing those things with speech-based technology, they’ll be safe. But they’re not.”
Unfortunately, it now appears that hands-free cell phone use is not the solution to reducing the injuries and deaths caused by the negligence of distracted drivers.