The evidence on hands-free cell phone devices while driving

Whether it’s a quick call to ask what’s needed from the grocery store or catching up with a long-distance friend – people everywhere talk on cell phones while they’re driving.

It’s long been recognized that talking on the phone while driving increases your risk of being involved in a crash. But in recent years, car and technology companies have marketed hands-free devices as a safer way to talk while driving.

Now a growing body of evidence suggests using hands-free phone devices such as ear pieces and Bluetooth is equally as dangerous as talking on a cell phone normally.

The latest study, commissioned by the American Automobile Association and performed by researchers are the University of Utah, measured the cognitive distraction created by performing a wide variety of tasks while driving. Listening to the radio or a book on tape proved to be the least distracting activities, while performing a verbal cognitive task involving math and word recall proved to be the post distracting. Talking on a hands-free celluar device ranked in the middle of the spectrum – more distracting than talking to a passenger and slightly less distracting than holding a phone up to your ear.

There’s more evidence, as well. A systematic review published in 2009 found talking on the phone – hands-free or not – has a negative influence upon driving performance. And it found that people talking on hands-free devices drive at faster speeds than those using hand-held device possibly because the hands-free device provides a false sense of security, resulting in a greater incidence of car accidents.

In addition, a 2012 white paper by the National Safety Council – which includes references from more than 30 research studies – found that “the cognitive distraction from paying attention to conversation – from listening and responding to a disembodied voice – contributes to numerous driving impairments” including inattention blindness (when drivers look at, but do not “see” objects in their path), slower reaction times and problems staying in a lane. That paper concludes: “Driving while talking on cell phones – handheld and hands-free – increases risk of injury and property damage crashes fourfold.”

Taken together, the evidence is clear: Talking on the phone while driving – even when using a hand-free device – is not safe.  So they next time you’re tempted to make that quick call or pick up the phone while you’re on the road, take a moment to think about what the research shows.

Comments

  1. Malc says:

    I recently had a very close shave whist talking on hands free whilst driving – Only the vigilance of the other driver (Who gave me a well deserved blast on the horn and probably quite a few new names) avoided a collision which would have been entirely my fault, as that final 10% of concentration just wasn’t happening with me.
    Lesson learned – I will not now make or receive a call whist on the move. I have told my employers that, and the are fine with it.

  2. Paul says:

    How is talking to a passenger in the car more distracting than a hands free phone call!? What’s next, advising not to talk to passengers or not taking passengers at all because of an ‘Increased risk’

    • jeff says:

      read it again, it didn’t say that talking to passenger is more distracting than a hands free phone call.

      • Paul says:

        I read it quite clearly the first time thanks. My point is that being on a hands free phone call is no more distracting than having a passenger in the car.

  3. Andrew Currie says:

    Sadly, here in the UK, even organisations that present themselves as involved in road safety, are still endorsing hands-free phone conversations when driving.
    Following their release of a video that inferred that hands-free use was safe, I provided GEM (Guild of Experienced Motorists) various references to studies. Despite that, my latest copy of their magazine carries a whole page article about mobile phone use, yet manages to avoid mentioning the dangers of all phone conversations whether hand held or hands-free.
    Andrew Currie
    Research and Education, specialising in driving and road safety

  4. Claude says:

    While I wholeheartedly agree with the article, I almost have the impression it was written while driving :-)
    Here’s why:
    “The latest study, commissioned by the American Automobile Association and performed by researchers are the University of Utah” should read “…by researchers AT the University…”
    “Listening to the radio or a book on tape proved to be the least distracting activities, while performing a verbal cognitive task involving math and word recall proved to be the post distracting” should read “… proved to be the MOST distracting…”
    Cheers
    Claude

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