Every year thousands of people are killed in crashes involving a distracted driver. And hundreds of thousands more are injured. Distracted driving is a serious issue, no doubt about it, especially as mobile use continues to increase at an extremely fast rate. People these days tend to be attached to their phones and, as these gadgets get "smarter," many users heavily rely upon them. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks to mobile is the increased levels of distracted driving. 

Is Hands-Free Really the Solution?

As a way to mitigate the risks, the idea emerged several years ago of using hands-free devices. Hands-free devices keep the driver's eyes on the road, so all is good, right?

Maybe not.

Perhaps they do help lessen some risk, but a couple of studies published over the past few years seem to indicate this may not necessarily be the case.

Credit: Unsplash via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain https://pixabay.com/en/driver-car-traffic-man-hurry-1149997/

A Study Conducted in 2013

According to a 2013 study published by the American Automobile Association (AAA) suggests  using hands-free technology in cars may be giving a false sense of security. 2 The study, which was conducted at the University of Utah, found that cognitive distractions slow reaction time for drivers. Even using hands-free devices, drivers were not able to focus as well as they would have if they weren't using any device at all, concluded researchers. The researchers used two groups, a "distracted" group and a control group that had no other factors diverting their attention. Cameras were used to monitor eye/head movements and an electroencephalographic cap was used to measure brain activity.

“We were looking with brain wave activity and measures of driving performance to show that even though they were able to look at the road and keep their hands on that steering wheel, their brains were still taken off the driving task and their driving performance suffered as a result,” said Bruce Hamilton, manager of research and communications with the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Different distractors were introduced, including radio, audiobooks, passenger conversation, cellphone, hands-free phone, speech to text system and verbal or mathematical problems. These actions were ranked 1-5. The problem-solving was the most distracting. Interestingly enough, the results found a mobile phone without a hands-free, when compared with one with hands-free, weren't very different. Researchers found a .18 difference, as both hovered in the 2 to 3 range on the scale.

Driver talking on mobile phone
Credit: David Howard vis Flickr/CC by 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/satguru/2928835715

2016 Study Suggests 'Mental Imagery' is Distracting

Fast-forward to 2016 and another study, this one conducted in England, also found interesting results. The researchers said that conversations of any kind can create a distraction for a driver if it requires him or her to use “mental imagery”. Researchers found drivers failed to recognize road hazards during conversations where they were envisioning

"A popular misconception is that using a mobile phone while driving is safe as long as the driver uses a hands-free phone," Graham Hole, a psychology lecturer at the University of Sussex in England and an author of the study, said in a statement (courtesy LiveScience). [3] "Our research shows this is not the case."

Two experiments were conducted. In the first experiment, 60 participants were broken up into three groups of 20 and put through a simulated driving course. During the course the drivers were presented with road hazards.

  • The first group went through the course with no distractions.
  • Group number two was asked a series of true or false questions during the simulation which required visual imagery (the example given involved the positioning of passengers in a rowboat).
  • Group number three was also asked a series of true or false questions, but these were more straightforward and did not require any imagery (the example given was “The official language of Mexico is Spanish”).

Results showed Group One detected the most hazards while Group Two detected the least. A second experiment was carried out which tracked the eye movements of participants as they were given scenarios; the experiment also tracked reaction times. Similar results as the first experiment were found.

Many might say hands-free are the same as a driver speaking to a passenger, but researchers suggest this is not true because passengers tend to also have their eyes on the road and will point out any hazards.

New Jersey Highway
Credit: Leigh Goessl

Distracted Driving Statistics

According to statistics published by the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 2014, there were 3,179 deaths and 431,000 injuries in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted driving. [1] In 2011, it was reported just under 25 percent of car crashes in the U.S. involved mobile use.

While there are many forms of distracted driving, mobile phones are by far the most "alarming" according to officials. Which makes sense being today's phones are pretty much mini-computers.

[ Related Reading: How Mobile Has Evolved Over the Decades ]

The U.S. Department of Transportation also points to the fact 169.3 billion text messages are sent each month in the United States (including Puerto Rico, the Territories and Guam) as of December 2014.[1]

How many of those texts were sent by drivers?

What Will the Future Bring?

In addition, many carmakers are increasingly building in features to encourage digital gadget use. For instance, it is not uncommon to see drivers wearing ear buds while driving, which can also block out much-needed attention to a driver's surroundings.  

It is anticipated 62 million vehicles in 2018 will be fitted for "info-tainment", reported the Los Angeles Times in 2013. (courtesy of Lacrosse Tribune). [4] That year this figure was estimated to be about 9 million cars. Bluetooth is also increasingly part of the standard package in new cars.

“It’s time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free,” said AAA CEO Robert Darbelnet in 2013 (courtesy Transport Topics). [5]

Of course, it may be the auto industry has another vision completely as autonomous cars are pursued. But that means drivers are likely to become completely complacent, letting the technology do the work while they sit back and relax with their gadgets.

One can't help but wonder if this is going to open up an entirely new can of worms altogether. What do you think?

[ Related Reading: What Would Happen if Technology Ceased to Exist? ]