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Research shows hands-free phones just as risky
Question of the Day
WASHINGTON — When someone is talking to you, your brain is listening, processing and thinking about what’s being said — even if you’re in the driver’s seat trying to concentrate on traffic.
That’s why drivers get distracted during cellphone conversations, even when using hands-free phones, researchers say. It’s also part of the reason why the National Transportation Safety Board made a recommendation this week it knows a lot of drivers won’t like — that states ban hands-free, as well as hand-held, cellphone use while driving.
It’s not where your hands are, but where your mind is that counts, NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman told reporters.
The board doesn’t have the power to force states to impose a ban, but its recommendations carry significant weight. And, judging from the public reaction, they’ve already started a national conversation on the subject. NTSB has been swamped with calls, emails and tweets from drivers both praising and condemning the action.
It’s the proposed hands-free ban that has generated the most controversy.
What’s next? No passengers? No kids? No tuning the radio? Maybe NTSB will ban driving altogether, was the tenor of the response on Twitter.
The scientific evidence, however, is generally with NTSB, researchers said.
“There is a large body of evidence showing that talking on a phone, whether hand-held or hands-free, impairs driving and increases your risk of having a crash,” Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said.
Jim Hedlund, a safety consultant and former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration official, recently examined 300 cellphone studies for the Governors Highway Safety Association. He couldn’t recall a single study that showed drivers talking on a headset or hands-free phone were at any less risk of an accident than drivers with one hand on the wheel and a phone in the other.
A similar analysis for the government of Sweden recently came to the same conclusion: “There is no evidence suggesting that hands-free mobile phone use is less risky than handheld use.”
What’s missing is hard evidence that accidents are increasing because of cellphone use. One reason is that U.S. privacy laws have made it difficult for researchers to study whether cell phones were in use in accidents in the U.S. The two large studies that have been done — in Canada and Australia — found drivers were four times more likely to have a crash if talking on a cellphone. It didn’t matter whether the cellphone was hands-free or hand-held.
But that hasn’t translated to an increase in highway fatalities in the U.S., where they hit their lowest level since 1949 last year.
Of 6,000 drivers surveyed by the highway administration, 40 percent said they don’t consider it unsafe for drivers to talk on a hands-free cellphone. Less than 12 percent said that about a hand-held phone.
Marcel Just, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, isn’t surprised.
It’s counterintuitive to think that hands-free talking is dangerous because people don’t have any sense that their conversation is draining brain power away from driving, but that’s exactly what’s happening, he said.
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