Ray LaHood Say Hands-Free Calls Are A-Okay, Throws NTSB Under Bus

December 22, 2011
Ray LaHood and President Barack Obama

Ray LaHood and President Barack Obama

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board announced sweeping recommendations that would prohibit drivers from using mobile phones at all -- even for hands-free calls. But according to an article in the Detroit News, fellow fed Ray LaHood has thrown the NTSB under the metaphorical bus, claiming that using phones for hands-free calls is still a-okay in his book.

Discussing the topic of distracted driving in what will likely be LaHood's final press conference for 2011, the man in charge of the U.S. Department of Transportation told reporters, "The problem is not hands-free". He later softened the blow a little, urging drivers not to use their mobile phones at all, but LaHood insisted that his biggest areas of concern remain making hand-held calls and texting behind the wheel.

That's music to the ears of automakers like Ford and GM, who've been spent countless dollars and man-hours developing high-tech infotainment systems -- many of which facilitate hands-free calling and even read text messages aloud. But is LaHood right? 

Not "the" problem, but "a" problem

LaHood has a valid point: texting and emailing behind the wheel remain the most serious offenses when it comes to distracted driving. In fact, it makes no difference whether drivers are reading or typing those texts and emails: their reaction times to sudden hazards doubles. And as if that weren't bad enough, nearly half of all drivers between 18 and 24 years old text and email regularly.

But that doesn't mean that talking on the phone isn't a distraction. And what's worse, research has yet to prove that making a hands-free call is any less distracting than using a hand-held device. In fact, a major study by the Governors Highway Safety Association made exactly that point earlier this year.

In other words, it may not be holding the phone to one's ear that's the problem, it could be the act of having a conversation while driving. That matches the DOT's latest finding that one of the biggest distractions of all for drivers is having a conversation with someone in the car. (You can download a PDF of that study here.)

Our take

We like to think that LaHood is being a pragmatist, focusing on actions like text-messaging that are obvious driver impairments. It's relatively easy to get that message across to the public -- not to mention legislators.

However, you have to applaud the NTSB for standing on principle. The agency's recent recommendations -- which are just that: recommendations, not legally binding -- aren't likely to win them many friends, but they're supported by the research to date. 

As we head into two long, holiday weekends, we know that many of you will be driving to see family and friends, and we know that Mother Nature is going to make the going difficult on some of the roads you'll be traveling. Why not ditch the phones all together -- just put 'em in the glove box -- to make double-sure that you get where you're going safely? 

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