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Hands-free cellphone bill won’t stop distracted driving

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.

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.

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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Comments (29)

  1. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/14/2019 - 08:37 am.

    My contribution to this effort is that if you are in front of me and hesitate one second after the light turns I am on the horn. This is in contrast to the old me that would patiently several seconds before alerting the bonehead that the LIGHT IS GREEN!

    Of course, new technique or old technique, both result in them making the light and me missing it…

    • Submitted by Martin Cocchiarella on 05/14/2019 - 10:22 am.

      I find it disconcerting that one cannot wait one (1) second for a light to turn green. If we are civil and polite, then one should wait many seconds. I never just go without checking both directions and deciding that it appears safe to proceed and that takes me a few seconds.

    • Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 05/14/2019 - 06:08 pm.

      Rather than run up the motor against the brake, many people will put their car in neutral when sitting at a stop light. When green turns, it will take more than a second for the gears to mesh. If you cannot wait more than a “second”, you should not be behind the wheel.

    • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 05/16/2019 - 08:54 am.

      I disagree with Martin and Dennis.

      First of all, putting your car in neutral at a red light is stupid and unsafe.
      Secondly, your ONLY job when driving your car is to operate the car. If you don’t go when the light turns green, it means you are doing something that you should not be doing when operating a vehicle. In my recent experience (and it continues to get worse) the driver is using a phone in the vast majority of instances. If they don’t move in a reasonable amount of time (within 2 seconds), they get the horn.

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/20/2019 - 12:10 pm.

        I wait a couple of seconds and then it’s horn time. Every single time it’s because the driver in front is is clearly on the phone or fumbling with something on the seat next to them.

        The “put the car in gear” is pure horse hockey as no one with an automatic does that. There are a few people like me that still drive a stick, but it doesn’t take more than a fraction of a second to throw it into first and pop that clutch. I don’t do jack rabbit starts and even so I’ve never had someone beep at me because I was taking too long to get it in gear and head on down the road.

        Put your precious phone down even when you’re at the red and pay attention to the road and your surroundings.

  2. Submitted by richard owens on 05/14/2019 - 10:04 am.

    This excellent informative science-based piece would have been a good guide to the discussion at the legislature.

    They spent most of their time making sure “hands-free” phone use could not be done by inserting one’s phone into their hijab. (seriously!)

    The old white guys talked about that and even shared each other’s phrase about the phone in the scarf as they “debated”.

    You can’t safely talk on the phone, even if it’s stuck under a Twins Cap or is on blue tooth without your mind leaving the roadway.

    If the air we breathe can be politicized, Republicans will do it!

    • Submitted by Rory Kramer on 05/14/2019 - 03:21 pm.

      This isnt a DFL or Republican issue. Nowhere in the article does it even mention a political party. It’s a common sense issue. Way too many people are using their phones while they’re driving for things that distract from their main job-driving.

      • Submitted by richard owens on 05/15/2019 - 10:33 am.

        I was referring to the debate on hands-free in which the Republican legislators argued against using a “headscarf” to attach one’s phone to one’s head, thus being literally “hands-free”.

        The difference between using a hijab and a blue-tooth ear phone is what? Is it political?

        The hijab / headscarf was discussed at great length as if it was to be illegal, while other methods or devices would be “ok”.

        It sure seemed like a Trumpian distinction to me, assuring us all that female Muslims would not be allowed to game the system.

        I should quit watching the tv coverage at the capitol.

  3. Submitted by Martin Cocchiarella on 05/14/2019 - 10:19 am.

    Unfortunately, much law is based on popular perception and opinion rather than evidence-based information. Thanks to the author for educating the populace. How do we get the legislature make laws based on evidence rather than misconception?

  4. Submitted by Matt Haas on 05/14/2019 - 01:43 pm.

    A ban on cellphone use would effectively double response times in the service industry. How would you propose mitigating those effects? Also, I don’t feel secure pulling onto the shoulder to use a phone, what would you propose as a solution to THOUSANDS of drivers pulling over, on every road, to use a phone. I understand that the common refrain is that we should all just wait, but in an economy timed in seconds, that is not a realistic suggestion. I’m all for making the road safer, but I’ve yet to see any proponents of either the hands free legislation, or those of these stronger measures, speak to these issues at all.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/14/2019 - 09:38 pm.

      Pulling over is a lot safer than driving while on the phone. But I expect that most people will realize that they just don’t need to be on the phone that badly.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 05/15/2019 - 10:25 am.

        But will it be, if your scenario doesn’t play out? I HAVE to be on the phone, it’s a business requirement, my clients don’t care whether I’m driving or not when deciding when and how they desire their needs be met. I’m answering on average 10-20 calls a day while driving between client visits. If we take a minimum of 10 minutes a call, to find a safe stopping area, deal with the matter at hand, and safely get back on the road, that’s adding nearly 2 hours a day at a minimum, taken out of productive travel time. That’s not insignificant, and is present across much of the home service industry. What solution do you propose, to make up for that lost productivity and potential income? Assuming people will change is not a valid strategy. This is assuming the approach preferred by the author, of course.

        • Submitted by Justin Doescher on 05/15/2019 - 12:06 pm.

          What did your industry do before widespread cell phone use? Maybe you should find another way to conduct business. Laws change how businesses operate all the time.

          • Submitted by Matt Haas on 05/15/2019 - 07:39 pm.

            25 years ago my industry didn’t exist no. This is of course another variation on the “people should just change” approach that hasn’t any rational basis. Instantaneous response and constant availability is the expectation NOW, no change in law is going to change that reality. I agree that road safety is of utmost importance, but I ask again, what is YOUR proposal to mitigate the economic losses a proposal such as this will engender.

  5. Submitted by Malcolm Parker on 05/14/2019 - 03:34 pm.

    This excellent article did not mention a few aspects:
    While conversing with a passenger in the same vehicle, all share the awareness of surrounding events. Cell phone conversants do not share situational awareness leading to increasingly strident inquiries: “Are you there?” We cannot avoid being affected by such urgency
    My adaptation: Find a large truck and tuck in behind. Mo
    One wants to get between me and a truck moving more slowly than the 5-10 mph over traffic flow. I routinely establish that if I am suddenly quiet, ‘Tis likely because I am driving. All that said, I am aware of the outcome research. Bruce Parker

  6. Submitted by Miriam Segall on 05/14/2019 - 03:48 pm.

    I’ll show my age and point out that we did not always have cellphones. I realize that everybody has to be connected to everything all the time now, we”re socialized to that and we’re not going back. If we didn’t have to have whatever conversation immediately, there wouldn’t be THOUSANDS of drivers constantly pulling over to use a phone. It’s true that without cellphones, if there is an accident or some other emergency, help would be longer in coming and maybe some people would die or be disabled who now survive, but on the other hand the people who are killed or maimed by distracted drivers using their cellphones wouldn’t be. However, phones (and computer screens) in the car are now normal, and while I don’t think there’s any question that a phone conversation is distracting in a way that a conversation with a passenger (usually) is not, facts are not going to change people’s behavior. The human mind is attuned to sudden change and novelty; as Mr. Haas points out, our economy is timed in seconds; our whole popular culture has become saturated with constant change and distraction. How could we even get people to really concentrate on driving? As far as I can see it’s just going to get worse until self-driving cars become an everyday reality, and as one who has to drive on Minnesota freeways in snowstorms, I suspect that reality is not as close as its proponents would like us to think.

  7. Submitted by Mark Kulda on 05/14/2019 - 04:26 pm.

    During the debate on the bill this year, it was said over and over by proponents that ‘hands free’ does not mean ‘distraction free.’ There may be some lab-based studies that show distraction happens by simply talking and that reaction times in labs are slower for people who are engaged in talking, even in hands free, the real world statistics are irrefutable. In 14 of the 17 states that already passed hands free laws, roadway accidents, injuries and fatalities went down. Two had flat numbers and one (Illinois) had an increase. So the real world data shows that hands free is in fact safer but it is obviously not distraction free. This new law will save lives, reduce injuries and lower costs. This is not a perfect bill, but it is one that will be extremely beneficial to Minnesota drivers.

  8. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 05/14/2019 - 10:22 pm.

    The law was at least an effort, but just because something is illegal doesn’t mean that people will stop doing it. Seat belt use is mandatory and yet…

    • Submitted by Mark Kulda on 05/15/2019 - 11:37 am.

      ….any yet we have about 96% compliance, which is one of the highest compliance rates in the US.

    • Submitted by Justin Doescher on 05/15/2019 - 12:08 pm.

      And almost everyone wears a seat belt.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 05/20/2019 - 09:50 pm.

        Except for all of those people in the fatality reports in the paper, which is why there is always a reference as to whether victims were wearing a safety belt or not. It seems like more than 4 out of every 100 reports says something different.

  9. Submitted by Joe Musich on 05/16/2019 - 09:51 pm.

    While city driving today I was followed in two long runs by people talking on their phones. The second was from Minnehaha Fallls along the parkway allthe way to Nicollet. Scary. Not in the mood to be rear ended but powerless….

  10. Submitted by Doug Duwenhoegger on 05/18/2019 - 09:46 am.

    “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.”.

    This sort of absolutism is what makes me question whether to take this article seriously. The only Legislation that would diminish distracted driving?

    Also since no citations we’re provided for any of the information provided we don’t know how old those studies are. The vast majority of people didn’t have smart phones more than 10 years ago. How old was the data they were based on?

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