True Or False: Hands-Free Calls Are Safer Than Hand-Held?

April 26, 2012

Today, 10 states and several U.S. territories have banned the use of hand-held mobile phones by drivers. The thinking behind those laws is that folks need to keep their hands on the wheel, and trying to fumble with a mobile device is a major distraction.

But we have to wonder: have state legislatures missed the point? Is it the device that's the problem, or is the conversation itself?

As we enter the final week of National Distracted Driving Awareness month, we thought it was a good time to take a look at the evidence.

LaHood: Hand-held devices are the problem

Earlier this year, California's Office of Traffic Safety released the results of a study conducted by the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center at the University of California, Berkeley (PDF). That study looked at California's traffic fatality statistics since the state enacted a ban on hand-held calls in July, 2008. 

The findings were encouraging. Overall, traffic deaths fell 22% (in keeping with the national trend), but deaths linked to drivers using hand-held devices plummeted 47%

Findings like that help to explain why Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has focused so much of his attention on banning hand-held devices, while giving a thumbs-up to gadgets that enable hands-free calling. 

In fact, when the National Transportation Safety Board proposed banning all calls for drivers -- both hand-held and hands-free -- LaHood basically threw the Board under the bus, saying that hands-free calls aren't such a big deal. Specifically, he said "The problem is not hands-free.... That is not the big problem in America."

NTSB: The conversation is the distraction, not the device

But the NTSB isn't giving up. Earlier this month, the Board defended its proposed ban on drivers taking any calls at all*. Board member Robert Sumwalt pointed to data that shows talking on a mobile device -- either hand-held or hands-free -- increases the likelihood of an accident by four times. (Sumwalt was probably referring to the Australian study conducted by Suzanne McEvoy.)

"But what about the data from California?" some might ask. "Doesn't that prove that hand-held devices are dangerous?" 

It does, indeed. But it doesn't show that hands-free devices are necessarily safer. Who's to say that if California had outlawed drivers from taking any calls behind the wheel that traffic fatalities wouldn't have dropped another 47%?

The problem, of course, is that no state in the nation has such a law on its book, so we don't have any real-world data to examine. In fact, only one municipality has such a law -- Chapel Hill, North Carolina -- and that was enacted just last month.

Our take

Driving isn't a right, it's a privilege, and with that privilege come certain responsibilities.

Late last year, the Governors Highway Safety Association published a study showing that few of us take those responsibilities very seriously. In fact, we're distracted behind the wheel 25% - 50% of the time.

The biggest distraction of all involves conversing with passengers, but as studies have shown (PDF), that's actually less dangerous than chatting on a mobile phone.

In the best of all possible worlds, drivers would stow their mobile devices while driving. It's what Oprah recommends, and unlike some of her dodgy book club picks, we stand by her on this one.

But while texting behind the wheel is always a bad idea, we understand that there are times when you have to take an important call -- someone's in the hospital, a child is ill, you're picking up a friend at the airport, whatever.

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