More Proof That Hands-Free Devices Are Distracting

May 29, 2013

If you enjoy using Bluetooth headsets or making calls through your dashboard, we have some bad news: a recent study suggests that using hands-free devices can be a major distraction for drivers.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta, and it's one of several that have made the debate over distracted driving increasingly tense over the past year.


A few weeks ago, we heard about a study carried out by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University that focused on texting and driving. Researchers found no significant difference between typing manually on a phone keyboard and dictating a text message using voice-to-text software: the two activities were equally distracting.

Though the study didn't consider the question of hands-free phone calls, lead researcher Christine Yager's conclusions on texting could theoretically apply: "You're still using your mind to try to think of what you're trying to say, and that by proxy causes some driving impairment, and that decreases your response time."

On the other side of the debate, we have the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which insists -- much to the National Transportation Safety Board's chagrin -- that hands-free communication is a-okay. NHTSA's own study found that "Talking on a cell phone, of any type, while driving was not associated with an increased safety-critical event (SCE) risk. SCEs comprised crashes, near-crashes, and crash-relevant conflicts". To NHTSA, the danger comes in manually interacting with a device. 


For their project at the University of Alberta, professor Yagesh Bhambhani and a graduate student, Mayank Rehani, employed 26 subjects, each of whom was placed in driving simulator twice. The subjects were tested once without any distractions at all, and a second time using a hands-free device to carry on a two-minute conversation.

Bhambhani and Rehani not only made note of participants' driving errors, they also used infrared spectroscopy to survey the subjects' brains during the experiments. When all was said and done, the two found that "drivers who talk using a hands-free cellular device made significantly more driving errors—such as crossing the centre line, speeding and changing lanes without signalling—compared with just driving alone. The jump in errors also corresponded with a spike in heart rate and brain activity."


None of the studies mentioned above are conclusive. In Texas and Alberta, the numbers of participants were fairly small. Furthermore, Texas didn't consider the issue of phone calls, and Alberta didn't explore the question of texting, nor did Bhambhani compare hands-free and hand-held calling.

NHTSA's study was admittedly more thorough than those two, but it was designed to provide rules for automakers -- automakers who stand to make a great deal of money from devices that allow drivers to make hands-free calls and send hands-free texts. We're not saying that NHTSA fudged its data, but to avoid the appearance of impropriety, we'd like to see independent verification of its results.

Bottom line: many of us know from personal experience that just speaking to a passenger in a vehicle can be distracting. Heck, the mind can wander, even when you're driving solo. Talking or composing texts -- no matter how you're doing it -- is bound to be a distraction, putting you and others in danger.  


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