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Is hands-free tech really safer?

One of the first steps many states took to reduce distracted driving collisions was to remove the phones from drivers’ hands. From banning texting while driving to introducing legal consequences for using the phone handset behind the wheel, numerous states attempted to make roads safer by impacting technology use. The assumption, of course, was that hands-free cell phone use was safer than holding the phone in your hand during a conversation. Unfortunately, this might not be entirely true.

Distractions come in many forms from phone conversations and sipping coffee to personal grooming and manipulating a GPS menu. These distractions are typically categorized in three ways: cognitive distractions, manual distractions and visual distractions. These categories represent whether it is the driver’s hands, eyes or mind that are distracted from the act of safely controlling the vehicle. Unfortunately, removing the manual distraction of holding a cell phone during a call still leaves the cognitive distraction of the conversation itself.

Is this the cognitive workload?

Through various studies, many researchers equate this distraction to an increased cognitive workload. Drivers often believe they have the experience necessary to multitask while behind the wheel. Unfortunately, attempting to multitask simply forces the brain to switch between tasks quickly, never focusing on one for very long. This can be troublesome in complex driving situations involving challenging weather conditions or heavy traffic. Numerous studies have shown that drivers cannot efficiently share their attention between tasks because both tasks are drawing from the same pool of cognitive resources.

While keeping your hands firmly on the steering wheel might give you the ability to react to stopped traffic, letting your mind wander might make it more challenging for you to recognize the problematic traffic in the first place. It is important to remove as many obstacles to your attention as possible while driving. Even an experienced driver can be overwhelmed by distractions while behind the wheel.