Study: Hands-Free Phone Use While Driving Just As Distracting As Hand-Held Phone Use

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A new road safety study from QUT’s Centre for Accident Research & Road Safety has found that talking on the phone with a hands-free setup while driving is just as distracting as using a hand-held phone, reportedly. Nonetheless, in many places, talking on the phone with a hand-free setup while driving is completely legal.

As far as what exactly “distracting” means in the context of the study, the researchers involved apparently measured the effects of phone use (both hand-held, and with a hands-free setup) on reaction time and overall driving performance using a driving simulator. They used the Centre for Accident Research & Road Safety–Queensland’s (CARRS-Q’s) Advanced Driving Simulator, to be specific.

To further explain, researcher Dr Shimul (Md Mazharul) Haque, from QUT’s School of Civil Engineering and Built Environment and CARRS-Q, notes:

“We took a group of drivers and exposed them to a virtual road network which included a pedestrian entering the driver’s peripheral vision from a footpath and walking across a pedestrian crossing.

“We then monitored the driver’s performance and reaction times during hands-free and hand-held phone conversations and without.

The reaction time of drivers participating in either a hand-held or hands-free conversation was more than 40% longer than those not using a phone. In real terms this equates to a delayed response distance of about 11m for a vehicle travelling at 40km/h.

“This shows hands-free and hand-held phone conversations while driving have similar detrimental effects in responding to a very common peripheral event of a pedestrian entering a crossing from the footpath.”

What this means is that it’s the “cognitive load” that accompanies holding a conversation that impairs driving rather than the motor skill involved in holding a phone. Probably a bit obvious to some, but I have heard people argue otherwise.

Dr Shimul Haque goes on:

“It appears that the increased brain power required to hold a phone conversation can alter a drivers’ visual scanning pattern.

“In other words the human brain compensates for receiving increased information from a mobile phone conversation by not sending some visual information to the working memory, leading to a tendency to ‘look at’ but not ‘see’ objects by distracted drivers.

“The distraction of a mobile phone conversation is not the same as an in-car conversation with a passenger because the non-driver can alter their dialogue based on the driving environment, for example stop talking when approaching a complex driving situation.”

Notably, there does seem to be some skill involved, and individual variation. For instance, those holding provisional licenses were affected much more by phone use than those who have had their licenses longer.

“Despite provisional licence holders in this study averaging a driving experience of more than 2 years, the detrimental effects of mobile phone distraction showed P-plate drivers had an increased probability of failing to detect a pedestrian.”

Also worth noting is this summary finding from Dr Shimul Haque: “Distracted drivers on average reduced the speed of their vehicle faster and more abruptly than non-distracted drivers, exhibiting excess braking. While the driver is likely to be compensating for the perceived risk of talking and driving, the abrupt or excessive braking by distracted drivers poses a safety concern to following vehicles.”

You may be wondering right now why I chose to cover this study on a site called CleanTechnica. The reason is pretty simple, though — if people are too impatient to wait to talk on their phones until after they’ve finished driving, then it would be better if they weren’t driving at all, and rather if a self-driving system was doing it for them, in my opinion. This study supports that assertion. [Editor’s Note: More generally, I’ll note that CleanTechnica has always been focused on cleantech that protects people (and other species) from the harmful effects of burning fossil remains, and we think it makes sense to now also cover related tech that, similarly, protects people in general from less safe options.]

When discussing self-driving vehicle tech, skeptics always seem to bring up “good drivers” in their arguments. Good drivers aren’t the issue that self-driving tech could address, though. The value of self-driving tech comes in when one considers all of the distracted, screen-obsessed, drugged (prescription or otherwise), and careless drivers out there. And for that matter, all of the sleep-deprived truckers out there.

Self-driving vehicle technology could well get some of these people out from behind the wheel, where most of them don’t want to be anyways, and thus slash vehicle collisions and fatalities significantly.

Image by Plantronics

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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