Research: Hands-free technology is still too distracting for drivers

Studies indicate that hands-free phones and in-car systems create dangerous levels of distraction and have various adverse effects on driving performance.

Most people in Athens appreciate the dangers of using cell phones while driving, given the manual, visual and mental distraction that these devices create. To many drivers, hands-free devices seem like a relatively safe alternative. Unfortunately, research increasingly suggests that isn't the case. According to various studies, hands-free systems are often too mentally demanding for drivers, and they may significantly raise the risk of serious auto accidents.

Alarming performance impairments

Researchers from the University of Utah and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety recently observed how well drivers performed after using hands-free phone apps or in-car systems. They found that the drivers showed troubling levels of lingering distraction. The Los Angeles Times reports that the drivers typically needed between 15 and 27 seconds to refocus their full attention on the road. At speeds of 25 miles per hour, this meant that the drivers covered between one and three football fields before shifting their full focus to driving.

Last year, a similar study from the same organizations also concluded that hands-free devices can cause significant levels of cognitive distraction. According to Dallas Morning News, the study found that using more than half of the in-car infotainment systems tested was more distracting than talking on a handheld phone. This is a troubling finding, given existing research on the performance impairments associated with using a cell phone while driving.

Understanding cognitive distraction

The cognitive distraction that hands-free technology produces can have various detrimental effects on driving performance, as the National Safety Council explains. Studies of drivers using hands-free or handheld cell phones, which have been shown to create comparable levels of distraction, have pointed to the following impairments:

  • Delayed response times. In one study, legally intoxicated drivers had quicker reaction times than drivers who were using cell phones.
  • Ignorance of immediate surroundings. Drivers who are using hands-free cell phones may fail to take in 50 percent of the nearby environment, including critical cues such as traffic signals.
  • Reduced activity in key areas of the brain. Parts of the brain that play a role in navigation and spatial processing, which are key skills during driving, are less active when drivers listen to language.

Although these findings were based on drivers who were using hands-free and handheld cell phones, they are likely applicable to drivers who are utilizing other language-based hands-free systems. This means that the risk of distraction-related accidents may only increase as these systems become more widely available and frequently used.

Prevalence in Georgia

The exact number of accidents that occur yearly in Georgia due to the use of hands-free cell phones or in-car systems is unknown. However, driver distraction appears to be an increasing threat to roadway safety in the state. According to WJCL News, in 2015, traffic deaths increased for the first time in several years. Nearly three-quarters of the reported fatal car crashes involved distracted driving.

The victims of these needless accidents may have legal options, provided that they can prove the other driver was distracted or otherwise at fault. To learn more about potential remedies, victims may benefit from discussing the situation with an auto accident attorney. An attorney may be able to help a person understand his or her rights and identify a strategy for pursuing recourse.