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Cognitive distraction: The safety of hands-free cellphones

Driver distraction leads to a significant number of traffic accidents, injuries and deaths every year. In Maryland and in many other states in the country, using a hand-held device while behind the wheel is prohibited by law. In order to comply with the law and continue engaging in cellphone business, a number of drivers have started using hands-free devices. Although these cellphones are designed to be safer by eliminating visual and manual distractions, they still cause a significant amount of cognitive distraction, which can be just as dangerous.

Researchers attempted to measure just how safe hands-free cellphones are by determining the amount of cognitive distraction they cause. The study, published by AAA, measured participants eye movement, heart rate, response time and brain activity while they operated a car equipped with monitoring devices, as well as a simulator. The participants were asked to do several tasks while behind the wheel, including talk on a hand-held cellphone, maintain a conversation using a hands-free cellphone, talk with a passenger in the vehicle, listen to an audio book, listen to the radio and compose an email using voice-activated technology.

The study results showed that using a hands-free cellphone is somewhat safer than a hand-held device. However, the differences between the two were minimal. Furthermore, drivers experienced the most cognitive distraction when using the voice-activated device to compose an email. Cognitive distraction, which occurs when the brain is engaged in two complex activities at the same time, can impede a driver’s ability to stop for a traffic light, yield for pedestrians, navigate in inclement weather conditions and respond to other drivers’ behavior. Researchers conducted additional studies on voice-activated technology due to these findings. 

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