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Using hands-free devices while driving is just as distracting as using handheld ones, study finds

Researchers say reaction times were 40% slower than usual in both cases

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Distracted driving is a very real problem that consumers face on our nation’s roadways. Safety advocates often point to smartphones and cell phones as being the primary culprits, saying that activities like making calls, texting, or using navigation apps hamper our ability to focus on the road.

However, as many previous studies have pointed out, it isn’t just handheld devices that are the problem. Previous research from University of Sussex has shown that hands-free devices can be just as distracting as handheld ones, and now a new study gives that notion additional credence.

Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) conducted a study to see if there was a marked difference between hands-free and handheld devices when it came to distracted driving. They found that the use of either kind of device accounted for significantly reduced reaction times.

Creating blind spots

The study consisted of a group of participants who were asked to drive on a “virtual road network,” which included one pedestrian entering the driver’s peripheral vision from a footpath and taking a crosswalk. The researchers measured the effects of using hands-free and handheld devices on reaction time and overall driving performance.

The findings showed that the reaction time of drivers who used a hands-free or handheld device were 40% slower than those who were not distracted. Taking into account the 40 km/h speed of the vehicle, the researchers say that accounted for a delayed response distance of 11 meters, or approximately 36 feet.

Dr. Shimuli Haque posits that the added distraction of talking on a phone disrupts drivers’ visual scanning pattern and makes it harder for them to pick out details. In a way, the process effectively creates blind spots for drivers.

“The human brain compensates for receiving increased information from a mobile phone conversation by not sending some visual information to the working memory, leading to a tendency to ‘look at’ but not ‘see’ objects by distracted drivers,” he said.

Experience and compensation mean little

Haque goes on to distinguish that the type of distraction is very important to a driver. He says that carrying on a conversation with a passenger is not nearly as distracting because the passenger can alter the conversation by observing driving conditions; for example, if a driver is entering a crowded intersection, the passenger can remain silent and let the driver focus on the task at hand.

Haque also says that driving experience does not mean much when it comes to distracted driving. Participants in the study had an average of 2+ years of driving experience, but distractions from handheld and hands-free devices led to a far-reduced ability to detect the pedestrian at the crosswalk. Drivers also tended to brake more abruptly during the exercise if they were distracted, which could endanger others on the road.

“While the driver is likely to be compensating for the perceived risk of talking and driving, the abrupt or excessive braking by distracted drivers poses a safety concern to following vehicles,” said Haque, concluding that the study’s findings demonstrate the need for additional mobile phone use laws for drivers.

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