As cell phones and communication technology grow increasingly popular, drivers are struggling more and more to ignore them while on the road. Those text messages coming through seem to demand an immediate response. An incoming phone call catches their attention at that moment, regardless of the driver’s other needs.
As accidents have risen due to distracting mobile devices, lawmakers have begun to respond by implementing laws and policies to help prevent cell phone use on the roads.
Most states prohibit using a cell phone while driving; in Texas, for example, that includes:
- No texting and driving for any reason
- Drivers with learner’s permits must avoid cell phone use
- Drivers under 18 cannot use handheld devices or talk on the phone at all while driving
Despite those laws, however, the persistent buzz or ding of a cell phone can prove hard to resist. How can you keep your hands on the wheel when you have so many other things demanding your attention?
Enter hands-free devices. With a hands-free device, you might think, you can not only remain in compliance with the law regarding device use behind the wheel, but you can also decrease the odds that you will get involved in an accident. It’s a win/win, right? Not necessarily.
Does hands-free device use really decrease accident risk? Can you safely operate a hands-free device while driving, while still keeping yourself and others in the vehicle with you safe? Take a look at some interesting facts about hands-free device use in your vehicle and how you can improve your safety on the road—without missing those oh-so-important calls and notifications.
Hands-Free Device Use: Does It Really Decrease Accident Risk?
A study performed by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute notes that using hands-free devices really does decrease accident risk compared to the potential dangers associated with actively using a cell phone, including texting and driving. However, the study noted that drivers who used hand-held devices still faced an increased accident risk of two to 3.5 times the accident risk faced by drivers who kept their eyes, hands, and undivided attention on the task at hand.
The study concluded that, while cognitive distraction may cause some increased risk on the road, it does not pose nearly as significant a danger as taking one’s eyes and/or hands off the road.
To fully understand the risks of distracted driving, it helps to break down the three key types of distractions drivers face on the road. Let’s take a look.
Manual distractions take one or both of a driver’s hands off of the wheel. Texting, holding a phone to your ear, or trying to navigate the buttons and inputs on a cell phone can all pose potent manual distractions. Most of the time, people don’t pull both hands off the wheel to deal with a task inside the car, from answering a phone call to sending a text message.
However, drivers may need both hands on the wheel to respond quickly in the event of danger, especially if they need to steer quickly to avoid a hazard on the road. Every second counts. The extra moments needed to get the driver’s hands back to the wheel could represent the difference between staying safe and getting into an accident that results in disaster!
Visual distractions take a driver’s eyes off of the road. In general, it takes around five seconds to look down, read a text message, and answer it—especially if a driver thinks they can sneakily check that message in their lap, rather than bringing the phone up closer to eye level.
In those five seconds, your car may travel hundreds of feet. Anything can happen in the space of those five seconds. The car in front of you could slam on its brakes. A child could dart out into traffic. You could have an unexpected twist or turn in the road in front of you, or encounter an unexpected slick patch. With your eyes and attention off the road, those seconds of distraction could prove catastrophic.
Everyone’s mind wanders once in a while. If people were totally honest, they might admit that they drive with cognitive distractions on a stunningly regular basis. Cognitive distractions include anything that takes the driver’s attention off of the road: talking with someone in the car, dealing with kids in the back seat, or even daydreaming.
Cognitive distractions could even be as simple as “I really need a rest stop, and I cannot think about anything else!” Still, cognitive distractions can cause serious accidents, especially for younger drivers, who might lack the capacity to respond reflexively to potential emergencies on the road. However, cognitive distractions pose less of a threat than the other types of distractions.
Cell Phones: A Distracted Driving Triple Threat
Did you notice how cell phone use on a traditional handheld device involves all three types of distraction? The user takes at least one hand off the wheel to pick up the device and use its interface. Their eyes drift to the device as they check to see what it says: who called, what the text message says, and what their response says. Then, the driver’s attention remains on the device, rather than on the road in front of them.
Hands-free devices help eliminate two of the three types of distraction. They keep the driver’s eyes and attention on the road, where they can more easily keep attention on the task at hand, while still allowing the driver to answer those vital notifications. Fortunately, according to the study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, the cognitive distraction associated with carrying on a conversation with someone outside the car has a significantly reduced risk of causing a serious accident compared to other types of distraction behind the wheel.
The Potential Dangers of Using Hands-Free Devices
While using hands-free devices can reduce accident risk, it does not necessarily eliminate it.
Drivers using hands-free devices may still become distracted and struggle to keep their attention on the road, especially if they are involved in an emotional conversation.
1. Drivers engaged in conversations with people outside the vehicle may notice fewer hazards.
According to a study by the University of Sussex, drivers focused on a conversation with someone outside the vehicle, especially one that engaged visual imagination, might have a lower likelihood of noticing potential hazards in front of the vehicle. In general, those drivers paid attention to a smaller percentage of the road, which made it harder for them to identify hazards along the way.
A conversation with a passenger in the vehicle does not pose the same hazard because passengers in the vehicle can see potential hazards ahead and moderate conversation accordingly, preventing the driver’s attention from drifting away from the road at a critical moment.
2. Hands-free devices may not eliminate visual distractions.
While hands-free devices aim to substantially decrease visual and manual distractions, they do not necessarily remove them completely. Often, hands-free devices require some attention to operate.
Suppose, for example, that you want to use a voice-activated assistant to send a text message or answer an email. That assistant might read out a previous email to you or dictate the other party’s text message, which will prevent you from having to look down. However, when you send your own message, you will only know that the digital assistant transcribed it appropriately by looking at it and proofreading it.
Some vehicles, including large trucks that have a great deal of engine noise, can also make it more difficult to successfully transcribe a message without errors. (Don’t we all have a funny story about a speech-to-text dictation mishap?) You may take your eyes off the road longer than anticipated as you look down at your own message—especially if you then try to make edits to that message.
3. Hands-free does not always mean entirely hands-free.
Before you can use a hands-free device, you will need to somehow indicate what you want the device to do. Sometimes, this means a single button press. Other times, you may need to tap more than one button to achieve the desired result. While some hands-free devices, including cars equipped with controls directly on the steering wheel, may require less manual distraction than others, you might still need to take your hands off the wheel to deal with a device.
In addition, when technology fails or does not behave as expected, many people pull their hands off the wheel to deal with it without thinking through the potential consequences.
4. Multitasking can create numerous cognitive challenges.
The human brain cannot multitask effectively. In general, you can focus on one task at a time without losing track of what you actually plan to do. When you split your attention between two tasks, neither one gets your full capability—and on the road, that could be a serious risk to you and everyone else around you.
Consider this scenario. You have called into work to chat with your boss about an upcoming project. You have the information in mind, but it takes a great deal of your energy and attention to concentrate on it. Suddenly, another car pulls out in front of you. Now you need to focus, not only on preventing an accident, but on controlling what your boss might overhear—especially if your call includes clients. With your focus split, you could cause a very serious accident without ever taking your hands off the wheel!
Using Hands-Free Devices Safely
While hands-free devices can reduce accident risk, they do not eliminate them. Not only does that mean you could face more risk on the road, but if your hands-free device use contributes to an accident, you could bear liability for it. Using hands-free devices safely can help you and those around you stay safer on the road.
1. Avoid using mobile devices when possible.
Sometimes, you cannot predict when a phone call will come in. If you’ve waited for a long time for that call, ignoring it could leave you distressed and frustrated. If the matter is urgent, such as needing to schedule an appointment or answer a call from a child at home, answer the incoming call. On the other hand, if you know it’s a friend who likely just wants to chat, you may want to let that call pass you by. Safety first! These days, many mobile phones have “do not disturb” or “driving mode” settings which can silence alerts or automatically reply to messages to let your contacts know you are busy driving.
2. Keep conversations short and sweet.
Let the person on the other end of the line know that they interrupted you while driving and that you cannot talk for long. Do not get caught up in chatting. Instead, end the conversation quickly after sharing any necessary information.
3. Avoid other distractions.
The receptionist on the phone wants to confirm your insurance information. Your boss wants you to double-check just one quick fact that only you have access to. Your child wants your advice. Unfortunately, all of those things require additional distraction that will take more than just your attention off the road, which can add additional risk.
Let the people on the other line know that you are driving and that you will answer their queries as soon as you get to a safe location. If you must provide that information immediately for any reason, pull off the road to a safe spot before allowing your attention to drift.
4. Try to start your conversations in a safe location.
Starting a conversation on your hands-free device can require some manual or visual distraction. While most hands-free devices may require only the press of a button or two, you may still have to double-check the display. When possible, start your conversation in a parking lot. Do not use red lights or stop signs as opportunities to begin your conversation, since you may lose track of the actions of other drivers around you.
Using a hands-free device may reduce driver distraction on the road, but it does not eliminate it. If you suffered injuries in an accident with a distracted driver, including one distracted by a hands-free device, you may deserve compensation.