Something to Think of This Holiday Season: Hands-Free Just as Risky

Something to Think of This Holiday Season: Hands-Free Just as Risky

New research suggests that even hands-free phone use while driving is a significant risk. A recent study by the NTSB says that your brain becomes heavily engaged in that function at the expense of attention paid to driving. The NTSB study shows that regardless of the source of distraction, the result is the same.

From a report on the study at the Omaha World Herald site:

The scientific evidence, however, is generally with NTSB, researchers said.

“There is a large body of evidence showing that talking on a phone, whether handheld or hands-free, impairs driving and increases your risk of having a crash,” Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said.

Jim Hedlund, a safety consultant and former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration official, recently examined 300 cellphone studies for the Governors Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He couldn’t recall a single study that showed drivers talking on a headset or hands-free phone were at any less risk of an accident than drivers with one hand on the wheel and a phone in the other.

A similar analysis for the government of Sweden recently came to the same conclusion: “There is no evidence suggesting that hands-free mobile phone use is less risky than handheld use.”

So while it might seem like a great idea to catch up with friends and family while making that long drive home from the airport (which ends up being about half of the phone calls between my brother and I), and it might seem safe with the hands-free headset or speakerphone, the better idea is just not to make that call while driving.

About the Author

Michael Anderson
I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!
  • Anonymous

    If the data show no difference between handling a phone device and
    hands-free speaking, then it seems logical to conclude that talking to
    passengers in the car would be equally risky.  Really…what is the
    difference between talking to someone in the back seat and talking to
    the console in front of you?

    I suspect what may be occurring when talking on the phone (or to a
    person) while driving is that some amount of focus is shifted away from
    the road and visualization of the subject matter, especially the “where
    did you leave the checkbook” type of questions, takes precedence,
    causing essentially a “mind’s eye” distraction.  As an aside,  I wonder
    how much of people driving too slowly while on the phone is the result
    of the almost reflexive human response to an intellectual task of
    “stopping to think”?

    Myself, I’d like to see some of those studies and see how they arrived at some of these conclusions.

    • As the article notes, you are pretty much never going to see the data you really need – which would be related to accidents, cell phone usage and so on.

      And you are absolutely right – talking to people in the car is no different! Or playing with your iPod, or trying to unflip the lid on your travel mug, or changing the radio station or dealing with the kids dropping toys or …

      Ultimately it is all about distracted driving. The studies they have done showing response time, physical drifts and so on all make sense. I think the whole thing is to remember that doing ANYTHING other than driving increases your risk …

      • Anonymous

        Elana was telling me about someone whose husband won’t talk to her in the car when he is driving. A bit extreme.
        Since people just aren’t going to stop I think, at the end of the day, it comes down to being as cautious as possible and letting technology make it as safe as can be.
        Sent from my iPad

        • That seems a little bit extreme, but I have been in the car with people who seriously could not drive and hold a conversation with others in the car without swerving all over the road. I get it. They are probably the same people who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, either. =P

    • The study did mention the effect of passengers. From the linked article:

      “Of course, drivers don’t have to be using cellphones to have conversations – they talk with passengers all the time. But talking to an adult passenger doesn’t involve the same risk as a phone conversation, researchers said. That’s because passengers are engaged in the driving experience with the driver. If they see a danger, they’ll usually warn the driver. Passengers also tend to instinctually adjust their conversation to the level of traffic and other difficulties confronting the driver.”

      • Anonymous

        I expect that would be largely dependent on the age of the passenger, the visual acuity of the passenger, and perhaps most importantly, the position and number of passengers.  An adult in the passenger seat might lessen the risk, but is there any hard evidence a “co-pilot” reduces the likelihood of an accident? What about people in the back seat? Do they improve driving ability? A boadload of soccer kids? In my anecdotal experience, I see more multi-passenger vehicles involved  in accidents in our local news than singular passengers, and while correlation does not always implied causation, on casual inspection it makes me wonder. 😉

        • I’m just reporting what the story said about that very issue – go back and read it. 

          As I recall, the study does not say that passengers reduce the likelihood of an accident – it says that talking with passengers does not lead to the same increase in accident risk as speaking with people on hands-free devices – the risk may be more than a driver alone, but it is less compared with talking on the phone. Their analysis for the reason seems “guessy” to me, though.

          • Anonymous

            Right, doogald, and just to be clear I wasn’t aiming my comments at you, but rather the original article itself.

            • The whole thing is very un-scientific for my particular taste (remembering my background is statistics and optical physics), with them unable to have the right type of data to be more specific.

              • Anonymous

                And that’s really where I’m coming from.  My background is in the science fields as well, so I share Michael’s views on the source data and conclusions.

          • Ammiller78

            This is key- passengers will slow down or stop speech in difficult driving situations, merging, weather. Ppl on phone do not change their rate of speech or react at all in dangerous situations. This is the critical difference

            • Anonymous

              That’s a really good point I had not considered.

              Written with Siri

            • And further to that, when a tense situation arises the main passenger can even run interference with any other passengers – particularly with kids.  So if you hit a bad area and the kids are messing around your passenger can wrangle them …