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Is Your Hands-Free Device Making You a Safer Driver? Research Says No

May 24, 2017

at-risk-driving-behavior.pngWe’ve all done it at some point in the past, and my bet is, some of you reading this post still do it fairly often. That’s right – talking on your mobile phone while driving. By now, the research is now pretty clear – driving while talking on the phone significantly decreases attention and increases the risk of vehicle accidents. It has joined alcohol and speeding as the leading factors in fatal and serious vehicle crashes, and it puts you at four times greater risk of a vehicle crash. Yet I am constantly surprised at how many people still believe they can talk on the phone safely while driving because they use a hands-free device.

The National Safety Council (NSC) has provided compelling evidence that hands-free cell phone use is no safer at all than using a handheld phone, based on over 30 research studies from around the world. While a hands-free device allows you to look at the road more and use both hands to steer, it does not remove the most important risk factor of all – cognitive distraction. When you drive while using a hands-free device, you may be looking at the road in front of you, but there are many things you are not actually seeing or noticing. In other words, there’s a lot of information in front of you that is not registering in your brain. This is commonly referred to as “inattention blindness” and it puts millions of drivers at risk each and every day.

A study by Strayer, Drews and Crouch (2006) which used a high-fidelity driving simulator to compare driving performance found that individuals driving while talking on a mobile phone performed similarly, and in some cases, worse, than those who were legally intoxicated. This was based on measures such as:

  • Simulated accidents

  • Brake onset time

  • Following distance

  • Recovery time

That was interesting in and of itself of course, but when they compared hand-held and hands-free cell phone users, they found no significant differences in impairment, meaning that hands-free phone usage was just as dangerous as handheld phone usage.

Moreover, you can actually see the impact on the brain’s cognitive resources when you compare the two. A study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (Just, Keller & Cynkar, 2008) conducted MRI images on individuals while they drive on a simulator versus when they drove while performing a listen and response task. Results under the task condition (listening to spoken sentences and judging them as ‘true’ or ‘false’) showed a 37% decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, an area of the brain that is critical for driving and navigation. This type of impact on your brain leads to major at-risk driving behaviors, such as

  • Inattention blindness

  • Slower reaction times

  • More lane departures

  • More vehicle crashes

So, using a hands-free phone while driving does almost nothing to decrease the risk of distraction while driving and talking on the phone. But think about all the other factors that can further increase our risk while on the road:

External Factors That Impact Us All While Driving

  • Bad weather – rain, wind, snow, ice and other hazardous conditions obviously increase our risk of a vehicle crash in any situation

  • Fatigue – fatigue impacts your response time just as much as being drunk; one study in Australia found that being awake for just 18 hours resulted in the same level of impairment as having a blood alcohol concentration of .05, and .10 after 24 hours; .08 is considered legally drunk (National Sleep Foundation

  • Time of day – the fatality rate for drivers is about three times higher at nighttime than during daytime (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

So imagine talking on the phone while driving at night, in the rain, and feeling pretty fatigued. That’s a dramatically higher level of risk, but I bet some of us have certainly been there! But we’re not done just yet. These are factors that influence ALL of us. But what about the unique ways in which our brain is hard-wired? What about our unique set of mental abilities and our personalities? Certain psychological characteristics that vary from person to person put some of us at even greater risk, and these can be referred to as our SafetyDNA. For example:

Internal Psychological Factors That Impact Each Person Differently While Driving

  • Awareness. People vary greatly in terms of how much detail they see and remember in their immediate surroundings. We also differ in how quickly we can react or respond to something we see in our field of vision – traffic lights, road signs, pedestrians, oncoming traffic – you name it. While the average human response time to visual stimuli is about 0.25 seconds, remember – that is the average. So by definition, about half of the population will be somewhat slower than that. Considering that a vehicle traveling at just 40mph will travel about 120 feet (eight car lengths) before it can stop, you can see how even a very small interpersonal difference in ability to perceive objects in your field of vision, or in reaction time, can be the difference between a crash or a near miss. So what is the total exposure to risk for someone who is lower on this ability AND is talking on a phone while driving?

  • Emotional Control. Some individuals get frustrated, agitated or stressed out than others. It’s one of the most well-known personality traits in psychology. We know from research that people who are lower in this factor tend to be injured more often, and when you think about road rage and its associated dangers, it’s not difficult to imagine that some individuals will be in an agitated mental state much more often and faster than others, leading them to engage in riskier driving behaviors. Take someone like this and put them on the phone while driving, and you could get significantly more risk of a vehicle crash.

  • Following Rules. Rule following behavior is partly a function of personality traits such as conscientiousness and need for structure. Thus, some individuals tend to naturally prefer rules and policies and a “set way to do things,” such as abiding by state and federal driving laws. However, those who are less rule-bound tend to see policies or rules more as general guidelines. An individual who is naturally less of a rule follower and is distracted talking on the phone while driving may increase their risk of a crash even further by speeding, switching lanes illegally or worse – driving while intoxicated.

  • Caution. We all differ in terms of how much risk we are comfortable with in most situations, as well as how impulsive we are. One could argue that people who are more comfortable with risk are more likely to talk or even text on the phone while driving, but if they do decide to do that, it’s likely that the combination of comfort level with risk and cognitive distraction at the same time can spell potential disaster.

Talking on the phone while driving puts everyone at risk, whether it’s on a handheld or hands-free device. It’s incredibly dangerous and there needs to be greater public awareness and action to stop it. But additional external and individual, internal factors such as our own SafetyDNA can put us at even greater risk. That’s why it’s important to know the risks of distracted driving, as well as how we are uniquely affected by it, knowing that for some of us, it can be even more dangerous.

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Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. is the Director of Safety Solutions at PSI. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.