As of today, 44 states prohibit texting and driving. (The six outliers: Arizona, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, and Texas.) Twenty-two place at least some restrictions on using handheld devices to make or take calls behind the wheel.
No state in the U.S.A. prevents drivers from using a cell phone at all -- the assumption being that going hands-free is a-okay. However, a new study from the University of Central Florida confirms what many have suspected: that even hands-free devices constitute a dangerous distraction for drivers.
Three years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that drivers be prevented from using cell phones at all. Study data suggested that hands-free devices weren't really any safer than their handheld equivalents, because the act of holding a phone wasn't the true cause of distraction. Rather, it was the act of carrying on a conversation or composing a text message that drew a driver's attention off the road.
In other words: the distraction is splitting your attention between the road and a call or text. It has little/nothing to do with whether you're holding a phone in your hand.
A week after the NTSB put forward that suggestion, though, then-director of the U.S. Department of Transportation Ray LaHood said, in effect, "Nah, hands-free gadgets are fine". And that was the end of that.
THE TROUBLE WITH WEARBLES
The newest frontier in communications technology is the wearable. The Apple Watch may be garnering lots of headlines these days, but Google Glass and its kin may be the most interesting -- and worrying -- to the folks in charge of roadway safety.
How worried should they be? The University of Central Florida teamed up with the Air Force Research Laboratory to find out. Together, they conducted vehicle simulations with 40 subjects in their 20s.
In the tests, some subjects were asked to drive normally, without any distractions, while others were asked to compose text messages using phones and Google Glass. In the simulation, the car in front of the subject would suddenly hit the brakes, and researchers measured how participants reacted.
The findings weren't great for tech fans. It's true that Glass users were able to return to driving normally more quickly after a near-collision than those using handheld devices. However, they responded to the braking car in front of them no better and no faster than those using handheld cell phones. Researcher Ben Sawyer summed up the results:
"While Glass-using drivers demonstrated some areas of improved performance in recovering from the brake event, the device did not improve their response to the event itself. More importantly, for every measure we recorded, messaging with either device negatively impacted driving performance. Compared to those just driving, multitaskers reacted more slowly, preserved less headway during the brake event, and subsequently adopted greater following distances."
Studies like this give ammunition to states like New York that want to ban the use of wearables behind the wheel. Unfortunately, such laws may be difficult to enforce until police get additional high-tech tools, which, in turn, perpetuate today's increasingly pervasive culture of surveillance.
The simple -- and perhaps only -- near-term solution to the problem is for drivers to put down their phones or wearables and focus on the road ahead. At least until autonomous cars come along to save us from ourselves.