Research: Using hands-free systems still qualifies as distracted driving

Various studies suggest that hands-free devices, including headsets, apps and in-vehicle systems, offer no safety benefits over handheld devices.

As technology has advanced, distracted driving has grown into a significant threat to public safety. According to Distraction.gov, in 2013, distracted driving claimed 3,154 lives and caused about 424,000 injuries across the U.S. Troublingly, since distraction can be a difficult factor to identify in accidents, even more serious and fatal accidents may have involved this reckless behavior.

In Washington, D.C., lawmakers have worked to address this danger by banning texting and handheld cell phone use for all drivers. Unfortunately, this may not be enough to protect drivers from distraction-related accidents. Research increasingly indicates that hands-free devices and in-car systems can be just as dangerous as handheld cell phones.

Effects of cognitive distraction

The National Safety Council states that hands-free cell phones offer no safety benefits over handheld cell phones. More than 30 studies have shown that both devices create the same level of cognitive distraction. Talking on any kind of cell phone requires drivers to mentally multitask, which means the brain must rapidly alternate tasks. This results in inevitable performance impairments.

Drivers who are talking on hands-free cell phones may fail to recognize half of the stimuli that they see. When listening to language, these drivers exhibit decreased action in the part of the brain that processes moving images and handles navigation. Additionally, in one study, drivers who were using hands-free cell phones actually displayed shower reaction times than legally intoxicated drivers.

Although these studies focused primarily on hands-free cell phone use, the general findings may apply to most types of cognitive distraction. A recent study helped confirm that many hands-free devices can be dangerously distracting, regardless of how drivers use them.

Risks of 'driver-friendly' systems

As Fox News explains, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the University of Utah tested how drivers performed while using a hands-free app or various in-car systems. Drivers took lab tests, completed simulations or drove under supervision while using the systems to send texts, adjust the radio and perform other tasks. The researchers observed and rated the level of distraction that each system apparently created.

The researchers found that four of the six in-car systems surveyed were more distracting than talking directly on a cell phone. They noted the following common performance impairments among drivers who were trying to use these systems:

  • They failed to see other road users, including vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians.
  • They missed other important visual cues, such as traffic signs.
  • They didn't react properly when traffic slowed in front of them.

According to the researchers, the systems that made more errors generally required more attention and effort from drivers. Still, the NSC research suggests that even systems that make minimal mistakes could prove dangerous.

Troublingly, these in-car systems are currently largely unregulated, and many drivers believe they are safe to use. This misconception may leave many innocent people at risk for distraction-related accidents.

Options after accidents

People who have been injured because other drivers were distracted may have legal recourse. A driver's decision to engage in a distraction that is not explicitly banned under local laws may qualify as negligent. However, proving that another driver was distracted and that this caused an accident can be challenging. As a result, accident victims may benefit from seeking the advice and assistance of a personal injury attorney.

Keywords: distracted, driving, texting, accident, injury