Hands-free technology isn’t risk free, studies find

Not all distractions are created equal; but all can increase the risk of danger on the road.

Though most drivers are aware of the implications of risky behaviors like texting while driving, some may be misguided by the widespread misconception that hands-free devices are a safe alternative.

Often, technologies like Bluetooth and voice-activated texting software have been heralded as the solution to distracted driving, but research shows such items may pose an equal or greater amount of risk compared to their manually-operated counterparts.

In order to fully understand the risk of such devices, it’s important to first understand the types of distractions drivers are most likely to encounter within the vehicle while driving.

There are three main types of distractions, each of which shifts the driver’s attention away from the road. These include:

Manual distractions: These involve the driver taking his or her hands off the wheel. Some examples of manual distractions are reaching for a cell phone, picking something up from the floor or passenger’s seat, or eating.

Visual distractions: Visual distractions take the driver’s eyes off the road. These include things like reading a text message or checking a map or navigation system.

Cognitive distractions: These are tasks that take a driver’s mind off the road, and can include talking anything from using a hands-free device or sending voice-activated texts to listening to a book on tape or listening to the radio.

Manual texting and similar activities are particularly dangerous because they encompass all three types of distractions. In fact, researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that texting increases the risk of a crash or near-crash by more than 23 times compared to non-distracted driving.
But according to simulation studies by David Strayer and colleagues at the University of Utah, even hands-free devices bear a significant amount of risk, some surpassing that of hand-held devices.

Strayer and his associates conducted a simulation in which people were distracted in various ways while driving. They contrasted the distraction levels of such activities against a baseline of non-distracted driving, which was rated a level one:

1) Listening to the radio – 1.21
2) Listening to an audio book—1.75
3) Talking with a front-seat passenger—2.33
4) Talking on a hand-held device—2.45
5) Talking on a hands-free device—2.27
6) Using a speech recognition e-mail or text system—3.06

The rate of distraction among those activities involving conversation is consistently higher than others, regardless of whether the driver’s hands are occupied with holding a device. The significant increase in distraction levels exhibited among drivers using speech recognition e-mail or text systems is even more noteworthy.

A study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that a driver can be mentally distracted for up to 27 seconds after using voice command systems for tasks like changing songs or composing a text. These findings mean that even if a driver has both hands firmly set on the steering wheel, they may be significantly distracted for nearly half a minute after listening to or issuing a verbal command. During this time, in which the driver attempts to regain “situational awareness,” their reaction time is delayed, posing a greater risk of accident, particularly if forces outside the vehicle should change unexpectedly—such as if a pedestrian suddenly walked into the roadway or a fellow motorist ran a red light.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2013 3,154 traffic fatalities were attributed to a distracted driver; that’s in addition to 424,000 injuries linked to distracted driving. In total, distracted driving was named the primary cause of nearly 20 percent of crashes.

In order to combat the issue, some jurisdictions, as well as the National Transportation Safety Board, have recommended a complete ban on the use of cellphones while driving—including both hand-held and hands-free devices. Some governments around the world, including that of Japan, have already implemented such a blanket ban. In addition, many companies have implemented rules against potentially hazardous devices within their fleets, and are working to educate drivers as to the fact that hands-free does not equal risk-free.

For more information on this topic, see this infographic produced by the National Safety Commission.