In 1996, about 14 percent of the U.S. population had cell phones. By 2011, nine out of 10 Americans owned a cell phone. We’re all well aware that cell phone usage has exploded in this country. Cell phones have become a staple in our daily lives and tasks, which for many of us includes driving.
Increased cell phone use has led to a rise in the number of distracted drivers, making our roads potentially much more dangerous. In 2009, distracted drivers were responsible for 16 percent of the fatal motor vehicle crashes in the country. (This is the most recent statistics available.)
One solution to address this epidemic is in the form of hands-free phoning devices. The reasoning is that if a driver is not physically holding his or her phone, that person is less distracted and less likely, then, to cause an accident.
This simply is not the case. According to report on distracted driving released earlier this year by the National Safety Council, hands-free devices offer no safety benefit when driving.
The risks of holding a cell phone while driving are obvious. Drivers can take their eyes off the road or hands off the steering wheel while dialing or looking for their phones. But the biggest danger of talking on the phone while driving does not come from a physical diversion. Cognitive distraction – diverting one’s mental focus away from the road – can be deadly. And such inattention occurs whether the driver is holding a cell phone or using it hands-free.
This has to do with the way our brains work. Our brains aren’t capable of multi-tasking; we can’t really focus on two or more different tasks at the same time. In actuality, our brains switch from task to task, juggling attention between them.
Any Phone Conversations While Driving May Lead to Inattention Blindness
This is key in understanding why hands-free phones don’t eliminate distracting driving. When engaged in a phone conversation while driving, a person’s brain shifts focus between the two tasks, which can lead to “inattention blindness.” This means that the driver may be seeing road conditions through the windshield of a car or truck, but may not be fully processing them. When this happens, a distracted driver speaking on even a hands-free phone may not be aware of a red light, for example, and drive right through it into the cross traffic.
Cell Phones Can Reduce Driving Reaction Times
According to numerous studies, cell phone use can slow a driver’s reaction time to potential accident situations. This gets back to how our brains handle the challenge of managing several tasks. It must process each bit of information associated with each task in a linear fashion before deciding on the proper course of action. Therefore, when someone is both driving and talking on a cell phone, response times to quickly changing roadway situations will be slowed. Again, this applies whether or not the driver is holding the phone. The danger is not the phone. It’s the conversation.
Many people feel that hands-free phoning while driving is safe. Tragically for their victims, these drivers may not realize just how far their attention has drifted until it is too late.