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Safety of Hands-free Device Use

The debate about the safety of hands-free device use when driving continues. Last week, our blog post    discussed two distracted driving bills being considered in the Virginia Legislature. The issue is important. In 2017, 843 people died on Virginia roads (DMV). These fatalities and 14,656 injuries were attributed to distracted driving. This is an increase of 18.2 percent from 2016 to 2017. In fact, Safety of Hands-free Device Use - Altizer Law, P.C. talking/cell phone use has been cited as one of the top three causes of crashes in Virginia.

“Virginia lawmakers are considering two bills that would clarify “hands free” device use while driving. The two bills (HB 1811 and SB1341) have very strong support from victims of distracted drivers and their loved ones.” The Senate bill passed last week. At this time, the House bill is still in process.

On Monday, the Insurance Journal published an article about new research conducted at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI). Contrary to several other studies, the new research says that by using hands-free technology, drivers can make and receive phone calls and perform some other tasks while keeping their eyes on the road ahead and their hands on the steering wheel without significant additional risk.

According to Tom Dingus, director of VTTI, “Any activity that places either visual or manual demands on the driver – texting, browsing or dialing a hand-held phone, for instance – substantially increases crash risk. However, our recent study has found that the primary cognitive secondary task of talking on a hands-free device does not appear to have any detrimental effects.”

In recent years, several studies have made the case that hands-free devices do not make the use of devices significantly safer for drivers. One of those studies (“Hands-Free Devices Increase Distracted Driving”) claimed that texting while driving increases your chances of a crash by 24 times. The same study (2017) claimed that “While 80% of drivers in the U.S. think using a hands-free device while driving is safer than using a hand-held phone, studies have, unfortunately, indicated that this simply isn’t true. . . . According to research by the National Safety Council, the reason hands-free devices are so dangerous is because they are distracting.”

A 2006 study (Strayer, Drews, and Crouch) used a high-fidelity driving simulator to compare driving performance by people using a mobile phone performed similarly, if not worse, that those legally alcohol impaired. Perhaps more important, they compared hand-held and hands-free mobile phone users, they observed “no significant differences” in impairment, meaning that hands-free phone usage was just as dangerous as handheld usage.

Another study from Carnegie Mellon University (2008) argued that a serious effect of driving while performing “listen and response” tasks showed a 37% decrease in activity in the parietal lobe of the brain. This area of the brain is critical for driving and navigation. The impacts on driving behaviors included:

  • Inattention blindness
  • Slower reaction times
  • More lane departures
  • More vehicle crashes.

Many of the studies conducted have focused on a few specific factors that affect driving competence. Yet there are other external and internal factors that affect every driver differently. Those external factors include bad weather, fatigue, and time of day. Internal psychological factors include awareness, emotional control, following rules, and caution. It should be noted that these studies have found that the external and internal factors can put us at greater risk than talking on a mobile phone.

Other previous studies have supported the claim that hands-free device use is significantly safer than hand-held phone use. The VTTI study found that crash risk increased by 2 to 3.5 times when drivers used a hand-held phone. According to director Dingus, “VTTI’s research has shown consistently that activities requiring a driver to take his or her eyes off of the forward roadway, such as texting or dialing on a handheld phone, pose the greatest risk. It is also important to note that in many newer cars, the driver can do some tasks hands-free using well-designed interfaces. Giving the driver an option to use a safer system will help with compliance for a new law and lead to fewer distraction-related crashes.”

As we await action on the bill in the House of Delegates, the considerations raised in all of the studies bear reflection. It also seems important to account for the interplay of various internal and external influences upon driving with mobile phone use hands-on and hands-free.

We’d like to know what you think.

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