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Hands-free cellphone bill won’t stop distracted driving

If lawmakers want to help solve the problem of distracted driving, a ban on cellphone use in the car—not just hand-held devices—is the only legislation that would work.

talking while driving
Photo by Alexandre Boucher on Unsplash

Distracted driving remains one of the top causes of traffic accidents and road fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. So I was glad to see Minnesota’s lawmakers address this problem. Unfortunately, the “hands-free” cellphone bill, signed in to law by Gov. Tim Walz last month, only bans drivers from using hand-held devices in the car and won’t stop distracted driving.

To understand why, we need to consider the research on distracted driving. There’s largely a scientific consensus that distracted driving is caused not just by texting but also by talking on a cellphone while driving.

It’s easy to see why texting — or worse, surfing the web — distracts drivers. It’s not as obvious why talking on a phone is distracting too. However, using driving simulators, scientists have shown that talking on a phone in the car impairs driving performance. In fact, talking on a phone while driving is as dangerous as drinking and driving.

Why? Many people think it’s because the driver is fidgeting with the phone. However, it doesn’t matter whether the driver uses a hand-held phone or a hands-free device. Studies show that using a headset is no safer than holding a phone while driving. The accident rates are the same for both.

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What interferes with driving performance, therefore, must be cognitive, not manual. In other words, it’s not physical interference from the phone but mental interference from the phone conversation that distracts from driving. Cellphones interfere with driving performance because they divert attention from one task (the driving) to another (the phone conversation). When phone conversations divert attention from driving, drivers are prone to causing car accidents.

Wait a minute. Why are cellphone conversations distracting, but not in-person conversations? Cognitively speaking, talking to a car passenger in person versus talking to somebody on a phone is not the same task.

When talking to a passenger, both driver and passenger have their attention in the same situation. Driving is a task that requires paying attention to the road, and drivers and passengers share an awareness of this situation. Cognitive scientists call this kind of task-based attention “situation awareness.”

For example, the passenger can serve as an extra set of eyes and ears on the road. When you have a conversation in the car, that passenger is aware of the driver, car, road, and traffic, which can help the driver heed attention. (You can probably think of a time when you called out a light, traffic sign, or pedestrian that the driver didn’t immediately notice.)

Christopher Cocchiarella
Christopher Cocchiarella
The brain has to work much harder to process a conversation when the person you’re talking to isn’t physically present. For instance, a Carnegie Mellon University study found that just listening on a cellphone led to a decrease in parietal lobe activity, which processes spatial tasks.

Again, it makes no difference whether drivers are using hand-held or hand-free devices. Either way, the distraction of talking on a cellphone makes drivers more prone to collisions. Even just hearing a phone ring or buzz can interfere with driving ability.

Think of it this way. Our minds didn’t evolve to divide conscious attention between eyes and ears. When both driver and passenger talk in a car, their eyes, ears, and attention share the same situation. However, if a driver talks to someone else over a cellphone, each person hears one situation and sees another. The result is divided situation awareness.

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By dividing situation awareness, multitasking with cellphones — including talking on them — in the car causes thousands of accidents, injuries, and deaths. Again, it’s nearly as bad as drunk driving, so keeping our cellphones off in the car is the best (and probably only) way to not become a distracted driving statistic.

If lawmakers want to help solve the problem of distracted driving, a ban on cellphone use in the car — not just hand-held devices — is the only legislation that would work.

Christopher Cocchiarella is a Training & Development Specialist for the State of Minnesota and a technology education advocate on the side.  He can be reached on his website

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