Safety and OSHA News

Cell phones no safer in hands-free mode while driving: New, in-depth analysis

Evidence continues to mount that operating electronic devices, including cell phones, in hands-free mode while driving isn’t safer than using hand-held models.

The latest evidence is from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The organization calls its recent study results “the most in-depth analysis to date.”

The new findings show mental distractions exist even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.

As mental workload and distractions increase, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, and drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues.

The AAA Foundation says it wants to dispel the common misconception that hands-free means safer.

The study, conducted by a cognitive distraction expert and his team at the University of Utah, assessed what happens to drivers’ mental workload when they try to multi-task behind the wheel.

Drivers engaged in common tasks from listening to the radio or an audio book to talking on the phone and responding to voice-activated emails.

The researchers grouped the tasks by the amount of risk they presented to the driver’s safety:

  • minimal risk: listening to the radio
  • moderate risk: talking on a cell phone, both hand-held and hands-free, and
  • extensive risk: listening and responding to voice-activated email features.

Using a cognitive distraction scale, with 1.0 equal to driving with no distractions, here are the ratings for various tasks when combined with driving:

  • listening to the radio: 1.21
  • listening to an audio book: 1.75
  • talking with a passenger: 2.33
  • talking on a hand-held cell phone: 2.45
  • talking on a hands-free cell phone: 2.27
  • using a speech-to-text email system: 3.06, and
  • performing an OSPAN task: 5.0. (An Operation Span task requires participants to simultaneously perform math and memorization. It was used to obtain a measure for a particularly difficult mental task.)

Based on this research, AAA urges:

  • limiting use of voice-activated technology to core driving-related activities such as climate control, windshield wipers and cruise control
  • disabling certain functions of voice-to-text technologies such as using social media, email and text messages while the vehicle is in motion, and
  • educating vehicle owners about the safety risks of in-vehicle technologies.

The National Safety Council issued a statement on the AAA study. The NSC said the results of the study “confirm the presence and crash risk of cognitive distraction. The NSC continues to call on all drivers to put down their cell phones when driving and pay sole attention to the critically important task of driving.”

What do you think about the new research? Will it change your driving behavior or your opinion about laws banning texting and hand-held cell phone use? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • somsai

    we need a disabling device on all cars that somehow synchronizes with the drivers phone but leaves passengers unaffected. There should be not talking on cell phones at all by anyone while driving.

  • CM

    According to their numbers, you are safer talking over a hands-free system than you are talking to a passenger; so why should I feel pushed to stop using my hands-free system when driving? I would be safer stopping the car and kicking my passengers out.

  • jburzynski

    Talking to a passenger about anything other than the road ahead is a distraction, no doubt. The passenger(s) do however have a benefit in identifying hazards, such as a distracted driver weaving into your lane ahead or other upcoming hazards the driver may have not seen.

  • Xma

    I agree with CM

  • Omar

    I agree with somsai because people is dying.