Even hands-free devices can lead to dangerously distracted driving.

Most people are unwilling to be unplugged these days, even when they’re driving. Hands-free devices may seem like the perfect answer to this problem, since they let drivers carry on a conversation while keeping their hands on the wheel. However, a recent AAA study has found that hands-free devices may not be the godsend they were once thought to be.

Texting while driving causes a frightening number of automobile accidents and injuries, but the study found that even using a device in hands-free mode has its downsides.

According to AAA, drivers can be distracted for up to 27 second after doing what may be considered relatively harmless activities — changing music, dialing a phone number, calling a contact, or sending a text message, even when using hands-free technology or the infotainment system installed in their vehicle. Twenty-seven seconds is ample time to run a stop sign, hit a pedestrian, or rear end another vehicle while a driver’s mind is still readjusting to the task of driving.

Why are these advanced hands-free technologies still distracting? Research has shown that they can be extremely error prone — think about how many times you have had to repeat yourself to correctly send a text to “John” not “Mom,” which can make them very frustrating to use, and frustration can be another distraction. Studies also show that older drivers, the ones most likely to buy vehicles with infotainment systems, are much more distracted than younger drivers when it comes to giving voice commands, simply because age causes a declining ability to multitask.

Focusing on Distraction

A hands-free device most often is a headset that communicates (via wire or wirelessly) with a phone or a factory-installed or aftermarket device that often includes voice recognition. Many hands-free devices allow voice-activated dialing and operation.

According to the National Safety Council (NSC), hands-free devices often are seen as a solution to the risks of driver distraction because they help eliminate two obvious risks:

  • Visual risk, or looking away from the road
  • Manual risk, removing your hands from the steering wheel

However, a third type of distraction can occur while driving: cognitive, which is taking your mind off the road.

Out of Hand, Out of Mind?

The human brain is not built to perform two tasks at the same time. Instead, the brain handles tasks sequentially, switching between one task and another. Because the brain can juggle tasks very rapidly, this leads us to mistakenly believe that we are doing two tasks at the same time, when in reality, the brain is switching attention between tasks but actually performing only one task at a time.

If you’re thinking about talking on the phone or sending a text while driving, you’re simply not capable of focusing completely either activity. While your brain is shifting focus from one thing to the other, it often becomes overloaded, resulting in slower reaction time and reduced driving performance. So even if your device is out of your hand, it’s still occupying vital space in your mind.

Image by Emile Wamsteker, under Creative Commons license.

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