Distracted Driving: Why Your Phone, Even Hands-Free, Is Still a Danger
A national safety expert says more than 30 studies have shown there’s zero benefit to hands-free devices
It’s rare to get behind the wheel of a car and not notice another driver talking on the cellphone — or (be honest, now) not pick one up yourself. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “at any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cellphones or manipulating electronic devices while driving.”
That’s a lot of distraction, and a lot of danger: Some 26 percent of all car crashes include some kind of cellphone usage according to the National Safety Council (NSC). Hands-free and speech-to-text devices, which supposedly make communication while driving safer, might not be helping.
“There have been over 30 studies that have set out to find a specific benefit — any benefit — to using a hands-free device,” says David Teeter, senior director at the NSC. “We can’t find one. The thought of going hands-free doesn’t change the risk one iota. It’s the cognitive distraction. It’s your mind not engaged on the task of driving.”
Cognitive distraction, as Teeter defines it, is when the mind is occupied with something other than the task of driving. It’s one of the biggest dangers that comes with using a cellphone or hands-free device while driving.
“This is an example I use that seems to resonate with people with the issue of cognitive distraction,” Teeter says. “I say to them, imagine you’re sitting at home, reading a book, and the phone rings. Do you pick up the phone, answer it and keep on reading? Everyone says, no, that’s crazy, I could never do that. Then I say, well, what do you need when you read a book? You need your hands to hold it, your eyes to see it and your mind to understand what you’re reading. What do you need when you’re driving a car? You need your hands to hold the wheel, you need your eyes to see the forward environment and you need your mind to recognize risk and know how to respond to things.”
How can you avoid distracted driving? Follow these tips.
Skip fancy car apps. Nowadays, cars can come with all sorts of options, including in-car apps that will do everything from update your Facebook page to make restaurant reservations. “Those have nothing to do with the task of driving,” Teeter says. The NSC suggests you consider springing for safety features like crash avoidance systems, stability control and GPS devices instead.
Give Siri a rest. “There have been two studies done on speech-to-text,” says Teeter. “Both concluded that speech-to-text is more cognitively demanding — and more distracting — than actually typing a text.” Speech-to-text technology isn’t advanced enough to accurately type out your message all the time, so it might demand even more brainpower and attention to get your message right.
Put the phone out of sight. “Give yourself a break,” Teeter suggests. “Get in the habit of putting the cellphone somewhere where you don’t hear it, can’t see it and can’t reach it.” Try putting your phone in the trunk or the glove box (as long as the weather isn’t too hot or cold) to remove temptation.
Another recommendation: Don’t just turn the cellphone off and leave it next to you. “People either forget to turn it off, or if they do [remember], we’ve found they’re tempted to turn it back on,” Teeter says. That process of turning on a phone while driving might be just as distracting as talking on it.
Just pull over. “I quit talking on the phone while driving almost ten years ago,” Teeter says. “At the time, I was CEO of a company, I worked on various boards. I was a very busy person. I would have sworn to you it would have had an effect on my work. You know what? We all adapt. Now, I never leave my house or office to go to my car without thinking, ‘How long am I going to be in the car, and is there anyone I need to call before I leave?’”
If you absolutely have to make a call or text a message, find a safe spot to pull off the road.
Practice good business. Instituting a corporate policy that deters employees from talking on their phones while driving for work might actually help the business. “The majority of companies — about 90 percent of companies — say there's no change in productivity,” Teeter says.