Using a phone while driving is illegal now in many jurisdictions, but hands-free units are allowed just about everywhere. However a new study from Queensland University of Technology has determined that using a phone in hands-free mode is just as distracting as a handheld phone.
Dr. Shimul Haque of the School of Civil Engineering and Built Environment measured reaction time and driving performance in a simulator, and exposed them to a to a virtual road network with pedestrians in a virtual crossing. According to QUT News,
The reaction time of drivers participating in either a handheld or hands-free conversation was more than 40 per cent longer than those not using a phone. In real terms this equates to a delayed response distance of about 11m for a vehicle travelling at 40km/h. This shows hands-free and handheld phone conversations while driving have similar detrimental effects in responding to a very common peripheral event of a pedestrian entering a crossing from the footpath.
Dr Haque says the cognitive load is the same, whether you are talking hands free or holding the phone.
It appears that the increased brain power required to hold a phone conversation can alter a drivers’ visual scanning pattern. In other words 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.
The study found that talking to another passenger was not nearly as bad as talking on the phone, because “ the non-driver can alter their dialogue based on the driving environment, for example stop talking when approaching a complex driving situation. “
On Cleantechnica, James Ayre suggests that this is another reason to look forward to self-driving cars: “If people are too impatient to wait to talk on their phones until after they’ve finished driving, then it would be better if they weren’t driving at all, and rather if a self-driving system was doing it for them.” He goes on to suggest that "the value of self-driving tech comes in when one considers all of the distracted, screen-obsessed, drugged (prescription or otherwise), and careless drivers out there. "
There are perhaps simpler ways of dealing with this. If the study is correct, perhaps the laws regulating cellphones should be revisited and we should ensure that drivers are concentrating on driving by banning the use of phones, hands free or hands on. Car manufacturers could also stop designing their cars to be instruments of mass distraction.