PhotoCar companies make a big deal about their Bluetooth-enabled sound systems that allow you to make and receive mobile telephone calls without ever touching your phone.

But there have been several studies suggesting this is still an unsafe distraction. Now, there's one more study.

Psychologists are the University of Sussex say the problem with a cell phone has never been that it occupies one hand that ordinarily on the steering wheel. Rather, they say the phone conversation occupies the driver's mind and makes him or her less aware of the environment.

The study found that drivers having conversations which triggered their visual imaginations were less aware of road hazards. Their eyes also focused on a smaller area of the road, sometimes causing them to miss road hazards that were right in front of them.

Little difference in safety

Dr. Graham Hole, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sussex, says it is difficult to see any difference in distraction level between someone holding a phone and talking and someone on a hands-free device.

“Our findings have implications for real-life mobile phone conversations,” Hole said. “The person at the other end of the phone might ask 'where did you leave the blue file,' causing the driver to mentally search a remembered room. The driver may also simply imagine the facial expression of the person they’re talking to.”

Hole says conversations are more visual than most people believe.What happens, he says, is a driver can enter a “visual world” and be less aware of what's happening in the actual world, with dangerous implications when someone is piloting a vehicle going 60 to 70 miles per hour.

AAA study

Three years ago a AAA study on the potential distractions of advanced infotainment systems in cars made special mention of hands-free phones, saying drivers shouldn't be lulled into the belief they are that much safer.

The study concluded that as mental workload and distractions increase, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, drivers scan the road less, and miss visual cues. Like the Sussex study, the AAA researchers said drivers run the risk of seeing, but not recognizing things right in front of them, such as pedestrians or stop signs.

“There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies,” AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet said at the time. “It’s time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free.”

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