Hands-Free Electronic Devices Safer for Driving

It’s been said for years now, since the mobile phone was invented, that using handheld devices while driving is dangerous. We’ve also seen studies that show distracted driving in general is dangerous; distracted driving can include children, GPS devices, onboard technology, and eating.

Thanks to research from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), we have proof that drivers who use hands-free electronic devices, versus handheld ones, are not increasing their risk of getting in an accident. The research shows that the hands-free technology allows drivers to make calls and perform a variety of other tasks while still keeping their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

“Any activity that places either visual or manual demands on the driver — texting, browsing or dialing a hand-held phone, for instance — substantially increases crash risk,” remarks the director of VTTI and the principal investigator on the study Tom Dingus. “However, our recent study has found that the primarily cognitive secondary task of talking on a hands-free device does not appear to have any detrimental effects.”

To what extent can crash risk be affected by primarily mental behaviors, otherwise known as cognitive distractions? That’s what the study set out to determine. Cognitive distractions may occupy the mind, but they do not require the driver to take their eyes off the road or remove their hands from the steering wheel—like talking to a passenger or on the phone or singing in the car.

The research showed that drivers who used a handheld phone while driving increased their risk of getting in an accident by 2 to 3.5 times. That’s compared to “model” drivers, who are deemed alert, attentive, and sober.

“There are a number of reasons why using a hands-free device could keep drivers more engaged and focused in certain situations,” said Dingus. “One is that the driver looks forward more during the conversation. Although engaging in the conversation could cause a small amount of delay in cognitive processing, the driver is still more likely be looking in the direction of a precipitating event, such as another car stopping or darting in front suddenly. The phone conversation could also serve as a countermeasure to fatigue on longer road trips. Perhaps most importantly, a driver who is talking on a hands-free phone is less likely to engage in manual texting/browsing/dialing and other much higher-risk behaviors.”

California law prohibits all drivers from using a cellphone unless it is used in hands-free mode.

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