Hang Up & Drive: Hands-Free Phones Aren’t Safer

6/24/2009 9:02:48 AM

Tags: Politics, U.S., laws, legislation, cell phones, hands-free, bans, driving, Governing

crashed carHands-free legislation leads people to believe that it’s safe (or at least safer) to drive while talking on a cell phone with the aid of a hands-free device, reports Governing. Well, it’s not.

Governing points to a 2006 study that found no difference between drivers talking on hand-held phones and those talking on hands-free devices—as soon as people started talking, they became more likely to rear end another car than a legally drunk driver. More recently, researchers found that simply talking on a phone cuts the brain activity devoted to driving nearly 40 percent. Even the wireless industry seems to be having second thoughts: Traditionally opposed to handheld bans, in January the industry shifted its official line to “neutral.”

So why aren’t we seeing outright bans on cell phones in the car? Twenty-nine states have enacted some form of limitation on phone use while driving, but none have gone so far as to wholly prohibit it. Governing has a theory as to why:

The best explanation is a rather disturbing one: Many drivers, state legislators among them, have simply come to depend on using cell phones during drive time to take care of business, check in with spouses or catch up with friends. This may make long commutes more professionally and socially productive. But it also makes the roads more dangerous for everybody.

Pam Fisher, New Jersey’s director of traffic safety, tells Governing that we’re at “the beginning of a ‘social norming’ process.”  Fisher thinks that attitudes toward talking on the phone while driving can and will shift—much in the same way drunk driving became socially unacceptable. In the meantime, pass on the suggestion: Hang up and drive.

Source: Governing

Image by gillicious, licensed under Creative Commons.

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6/26/2009 7:29:04 PM
Thanks for the link, Julie. That's exactly the kind of information I was looking for. The concept of situational awareness sure makes sense, but there are still unanswered questions that require further studies, as the article states. At any rate, I'm all for regulations to make the roads safer, as long as there are also systems put in place to reduce the number of cars on the road.

julie kate hanus
6/26/2009 11:04:34 AM
Hey, Sandy. That’s a great question to raise—isn’t “hands-free” the same as talking to someone in the car. And, actually, there is a sort-of interesting explanation for what might account for a difference. Harvard Medical School psychologist Todd Horowitz calls it “situational awareness.” People who are in the car with you can see when you’re coming up into, say, a traffic jam or are preparing to merge—and instinctively quiet down. Additionally, passengers can respond to physical cues (like noticing a driver becoming tense, so on). Horowitz was a guest on the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s “Science Update” show. There’s a pretty interesting breakdown of his research if you follow this link: http://www.sciencenetlinks.com/sci_update.php?DocID=368

6/25/2009 7:54:48 PM
What next, banning all talking while driving a car, whether it be to oneself or a passenger? I'd like to see the data from a follow-up study that investigates whether engaging in *any* conversation results in a higher likelihood of having an accident. Forbidding the holding of a phone while talking I can definitely see, particularly given the very dangerous temptation to text. But to my mind, holding a conversation on a hands-free is no different than talking to someone sitting next to you or in the back seat. Let's have more focus on keeping people out of cars (and, therefore, cars off the roads full stop), please, and a little less on what they do while in them.

6/25/2009 3:15:35 PM
I'm well aware that this is bad, but the thing is, if my mother isn't talking on the phone while driving, she just plain DOES NOT STAY AWAKE. I can't get her to go get more sleep or go to bed early, I can't get her to stop doing long commutes home before 9 p.m. But by god, if she's running her mouth off on the phone, she'll stay conscious behind the wheel. So I'm hoping they don't ban phone calls for that. And there's no denying that sometimes it's just freaking helpful to be able to call someone for directions or to get upcoming traffic conditions.

6/25/2009 12:24:45 PM
Despite what the study says, distractions have become a normal part of driving. True, it is absolutely best to keep them to a minimum. But as long as businesses refuse to let their employees telecommute, and urban sprawl causes more and more people to have to spend more time on the roadways, this will be an arguable issue. Hands-free devices are not the perfect solution, but are better than nothing. If you are going to limit these devices, you might as well limit eating, drinking (non-alcoholic beverages, of course) and conversing with other passengers in the car. I live in the suburbs of DC and commute daily to Virginia (as do thousands of people). I don't make a habit of talking on my phone. However, situations arise where you come upon major traffic jams, with no alternate routes available, and unless you want to lose your job, must quickly call your employer and let them know your situation. Often, it's frustrating, and no amount of prior planning or leaving early will get you there in time (the nature of the beast, when living here). When this happens, and I'm stuck in traffic for an hour and there's no place to pull over (esp. on the DC Beltway), you can best bet I'm making that call to save my job. Still, I make the calls short and sweet, and as infrequent as possible. So, there are two sides to this issue. I'm not advocating that drivers should text while driving, or conduct long-winded arguments with their spouses... just making a point that it's not always possible to totally refrain from the need to make a call here and there. There are unique situations that call for logic.

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