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Are Hands-Free Devices Dangerous?

The ban on handheld devices currently being considered by Governor Quinn may have unintended consequences. A recent study by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety suggested that using voice commands typical of hands-free technology can be even more distracting than using a handheld device. The potential exists for an increase in distracted driving accidents as people turn to Bluetooth and built-in devices to complete tasks they would previously used a smart phone to accomplish. Such bans will also likely accelerate the move by many auto makers to add hands-free devices into the available options on new vehicles. They may encourage drivers to take their attention off the task of safely operating their vehicles.

According to the study, the reason hands-free tasks are potentially more dangerous than other distractions is that they require greater concentration. While performing a variety of tasks, participants in the study were tracked for eye movement, brain wave changes and other factors. The hands-free tasks caused drivers to scan the road less frequently. It slowed their reaction time when confronted with stimuli such as traffic lights and pedestrians.

The President of the AAA referred to the expansion of hands-free technologies in cars as a "looming public safety crisis." The study suggested that roughly 9 million vehicles are currently on the road with the type of "infotainment systems" that can so distract drivers. It estimated that the number will rise to 62 million or more by 2018. The systems could become even more popular if Illinois and other states ban the use of handheld devices by drivers. Instead of causing drivers to concentrate, it could make them believe that hands-free distractions are not a threat to their safety.

Hands-free devices do not change the basic fact that a driver should be paying attention to driving and nothing else. There is no safe way to combine driving with the growing need to stay connected at all times. The study's conclusion that voice-activated technology provides the largest of all distractions for drivers makes the move to ban handheld devices questionable. The real solution is to convince drivers of the need to stay focused on safe driving.

Source: The Day, "AAA study: When driving, hands-free does not equal risk-free," by Izaskun E. Larraneta, 13 June 2013

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