hands-free phone while driving

Researcher: during hands-free conversations, a driver will visually imagine what is being talked about, and that imagery will distract the driver from focusing on the road.

The commonly held belief that it’s safe to drive while using a hands-free device is incorrect, according to a new study conducted by scientists at the University of Sussex in England. The study, “Imagery-inducing distraction leads to cognitive tunnelling and deteriorated driving performance,” appeared in the April 16 issue of the journal Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour.

Imagery a Distraction

Elisabeth Perlman wrote for Newsweek, quoting one of the researchers, Dr. Graham Hole, a senior lecturer in psychology at the university, who said:

A popular misconception is that using a mobile phone while driving is safe as long as the driver uses a hands-free phone. Our research shows this is not the case.

The professor went on to say that during hands-free conversations, a driver will visually imagine what is being talked about, and that imagery will distract the driver from focusing on the road.

He gave an example of the person on the other end of the phone conversation saying, “Where did you leave the blue file?” That will cause the driver to think about that, or to imagine the facial expressions of the person they are speaking with.

Longer Response Time

The study was conducted with 20 male and 40 female volunteers who were engaged in video tests while seated on a car seat at a steering wheel, wrote BBC News. One group was allowed to “drive” undistracted. With the other two groups, a male voice asked questions over a loudspeaker 3 feet away.

The volunteers who were asked the questions took just under a second longer than those in the undistracted group to respond to road events including a pedestrian stepping onto the road, a car coming towards the volunteers’ car (going the wrong way in the same lane), or a vehicle unexpectedly parked at an intersection.

Unlike having a conversation over a phone with a person who is not present, chatting with a passenger in the car is less distracting, the researchers suggested, because both people will stop talking when the driver needs to concentrate.

Cell Phone Driving Laws

The study’s findings make the case for all phones to be banned from vehicles. But the problem is how to enforce such laws, where they to exist. Dr. Hole notes that it is very hard for police officers to know if someone is using a hand-free phone. However, he thinks the law should be changed to “make it absolutely clear that any use of a mobile phone while driving is hazardous.”

In the United Kingdom, there are no plans to change the existing Highway Code to ban hands-free devices in vehicles. But officials are thinking about making harsher penalties for people who use phones in any way while driving. The law there currently allows drivers to use hands-free phones, but it is illegal to use those while riding on a motorcycle.

In Colorado, according to Driving Laws, there is no prohibition for using a cell phone while driving (other than texting) except for novice drivers. Texting while driving is banned for all drivers. Novice drivers, defined as those younger than 18, are not allowed to use a cell phone in any way while driving, except:

  • To report a fire
  • To report a traffic accident involving injuries
  • To report a serious hazard on the road
  • To report a medical or hazardous materials emergency
  • To report someone who is driving recklessly or in some other unsafe manner.

Image by Mark Adams/123RF.

Embed this infographic:
Embed this image: