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Hands-free cellphones: A major form of distraction

In Maryland, and in many other states across the nation, it is illegal to talk on a hand-held cellphone while behind the wheel. This practice has led to more than 391,000 injuries and 3,450 deaths from distracted driving car accidents in 2016 alone. When people talk on their cellphones while driving, their minds cannot focus on the road and are slow to respond to any hazards that they may encounter. As a way to stay in compliance with the ban on hand-held cellphones, some drivers have started using hands-free cellular devices. Studies show, however, then even hands-free cellphones are a major source of cognitive distraction.

Cognitive distraction occurs when the mind is not completely focused on driving but is engaging in another complex task at the same time. The brain switches back and forth from one task to the other, leaving spots where the driver is not concentrating on the road at all. This leaves room for deadly accidents to occur.

The study, published by AAA, involved participants engaging in several distractive tasks while operating a car equipped with monitors, as well as a simulator vehicle. These tasks included the following:

  •          Maintaining a conversation using a hand-held and hands-free cellphone
  •          Listening to the radio
  •          Listening to a book-on-tape
  •          Composing an email using voice-activated technology
  •          Talking with a passenger in the vehicle

Researchers measured participants eye movement, response time, heart rate and brain activity while they were driving. The results showed that while using the hands-free cellphone was less distracting than using the hand-held cellphone, the difference was minimal. Drivers still experienced a significant level of cognitive distraction when using the hands-free cellphone.  

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