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Hands free isn’t care-free — new driving study confirms what you might have suspected

In car navigation and telephone dashboard mounted devices on February 15, 2005, London, England.
In car navigation and telephone dashboard mounted devices on February 15, 2005, London, England.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

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A new study from the AAA and the University of Utah has found that using hands-off technology for making phone calls while driving can be at least as dangerous as using your phone. The study tested drivers in various cars equipped with automatic phone systems by putting them in driving simulations.

Drivers were graded on a five-point scale that measured cognitive distraction rather than visual distraction. In other words, the researchers studied the consequences of an increase in the mental workload of drivers while talking on the phone rather than the effects of a driver averting his or her eyes from the road. According to the researchers’ analysis of the data, use of these systems created significant cognitive distractions for the drivers. In addition, a related study by the same researchers found that Apple’s voice control system, Siri, caused a similar increase in cognitive load. The researchers stressed that while each car’s automatic phone system produced varying levels of distraction, the main takeaway of the study should be that increasing cognitive distractions, whether hands-on or hands-off, will lead to poorer driving. The study did not look at texting, accessing apps, or other systems that allow drivers to access their phone through their vehicle.

Will future technology be able to eliminate the threat posed by driving and talking? Are some drivers better at handling cognitive distractions than others?


David Strayer, professor of psychology at the University of Utah and the lead author of the study