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Hands Free Devices Proven Safe?

It’s really not news to anyone that dialling, texting, or chatting on a hand-held cell phone while driving can be distracting and, therefore, potentially dangerous. In fact, it can be downright deadly. 

The hazards of using your cell while behind the wheel are regularly reinforced by statistics like these: 

  • The National Safety Council (NSC) advises cell phone use while driving leads to 1.1 Million car crashes annually
  • Text messaging while driving increases the chance of an accident 6 times more than driving while intoxicated
  • Distracted driving in all forms is directly related to the death of 3,166 Americans (NHTSA, 2017

However, according to a new study published by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), maybe we have it all wrong. Maybe there really isn’t anything to worry about when it comes to talking and SMS-ing while driving, if you use the right equipment…specifically a hands-free smartphone. 

You see, earlier this year VTTI published findings that drivers using hands-free electronic devices are actually not increasing their accident risk. So how did the researchers come to this conclusion? Let’s take a closer look. 

Groundbreaking VTTI Cell Phone Study 

VTTI’s research indicates drivers using hands-free technology to make phone calls, send voice texts, and perform other tasks are still able to remain attentive while in the driver’s seat. 

To get the study started, VTTI researchers analyzed videos and other sensor data from a recent Second Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP) driving study. The videos provided over 6 Million miles of real-life driving situations: 3,454 drivers, 630 minor auto accidents, 275 serious car crashes, and 19,732 uneventful (“normal driving”) control periods. 

VTTI researchers reviewed light passenger vehicles, as well as heavy duty trucks. During this process, all the videos were reviewed at length to identify any mental (cognitive) distractions. These are defined as non-physical disruptions that don’t need the driver to take their hands off the steering wheel or avert their eyes from the roadway. 

For example, driving while singing, interacting with passengers, dialing or talking on a hands-free phone are all cognitive distractions. That’s because you’re using your brain and not your fingers to perform these type of tasks. 

In addition, VTTI researchers also examined instances of drivers performing manual and visual activities like eating, changing radio stations, or texting on a hand-held phone. 

The objective of VTTI’s project was to answer one question: do hands-free devices encourage or discourage accidents? The study’s end result led to a surprising answer. Basically, VTTI advised voice-activated hands-free software does not put drivers in jeopardy. 

National Hand-Held Phone Statistics

So how did the American public arrive at the idea that using a cell phone while driving was the worst thing you could do on the highway? Maybe even worse than drunk driving? 

The seed could have been planted more than 20 years ago. 

Back in 1997, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recognized the increasing popularity of cell phone use while driving. As a result, NHTSA conducted one of the first assessments of the possible dangers wireless phone use creates for drivers. 

Their conclusion stated “…there are trends which show that cellular telephone use is a growing factor in crashes.” 

At the time, NHTSA further concluded that hand-held phones contributed to dangerous driving conditions in the following manner: 

  • Handling the cell phone when texting, answering, dialing, etc. 
  • Cell phone conversations distracted drivers from focusing on the road

As smartphone use continued to become more prevalent, it seemed only logical that cellular phones were causing more and more auto accidents. 

VTTI Hands-Free Device Findings

Tom Dingus, VTTI’s principal researcher, explained their 2019 study confirms only half of the public’s assumptions are actually correct. 

Dingus advised that any activity requiring manual or visual participation from the driver (such as putting on makeup or texting from a hand-held smartphone) substantially increases the crash risk. 

That’s why VTTI reports a driver using a hand-held cell increased their chance of crashing by more than 3 times that of a “model driver” that is sober, alert, and not using their cell phone in any capacity. 

On the flip side, VTTI concluded the cognitive secondary action of drivers using their cell phone in hands-free mode didn’t seem to have any harmful effects. There were actual cases where hands-free smartphone use correlated with a lower accident rate than the control group of model drivers. 

Furthermore, not one of the 275 serious car crashes under review were caused by the use of a hands-free device. 

Dingus deduces the following are specific reasons why hands-free technology keeps drivers safer on the roads: 

  1. Drivers look forward during phone conversations so they’re more likely to react appropriately to activity around them 
  2. Phone conversations counteract fatigue while on long car rides
  3. Drivers talking on a hands-free device are less likely to manually text/browse/dial

Perhaps Dingus is right when he advised that providing drivers with the option of using a safer, hands-free system will lead to less distraction and less accidents. 

Will More States Move to Hands-Free Device Legislation? 

One has to wonder if, and how, the VTTI study will influence legislation going forward. 

As of this date, talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving is illegal in 16 U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia. So, the question remains, will VTTI’s study encourage the other 34 American states to also place a ban on driving while using a hand-held device? 

Perhaps VTTI’s study outcomes will help convince legislators and drivers that hands-free is the way to go.